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Statue of Zeus at Olympia

To the lists of the World Wonders Greece contributed only two representatives of her classical period, and only one of these was found on the native soil. So much the worse for the Wonders; but if Greece was to send only one autochthonous delegate, what could have been better than Phidias's masterpiece?

Phidias, the most famous of Greek sculptors, was born about 500 BC, and began his artistic career, probably under the guidance of his father, Charmides of Athens, with the study of painting, an art which at that time had attained a singular largeness and dignity of style, while in sculpture these qualities were as yet being sought for with only a somewhat bold and rude result, as may be seen from the remains of it now at Olympia. To do justice to the art of sculpture in this direction there wa3 need of a far greater mastery of technical methods.

Phidias was employed to execute for the acropolis of Athens a statue of Athena. This statue, known in after times as "the Lemnian" and also as "the beauty," seems to have represented the goddess in the attitude of standing at rest, helmet in hand, as in a terra-cotta statuette from Cyprus in the British Museum.1 When Pericles succeeded to the administration of affairs, and it was determined to erect new temples and other public buildings worthy of the new glory which Athens had acquired in the Persian wars, it was to Phidias that the supervision of all these Works was entrusted, with an army of artists and skilled workmen under him. By 438 the Parthenon was completed, with its colossal statue of Athena in gold and ivory by Phidias himself, and with its vast extent of sculpture in marble, executed at least under his direction and reflecting in most parts his genius.

Meantime the enormous expense of these undertakings had involved Phidias in the public discontent which was growing up round Pericles (Aristoph., Peace, 605). The conservative opposition which felt itself too weak to attack Perikles directly gathered courage enough to attack his friends, and the lavish expenditures which the treasurers' accounts showed had been made on the Parthenon rendered the commissioner of public works an easy target for the demagogue.

Menon, a former assistant of Phidias, had brought a charge against him of having appropriated part of the gold and ivory allowed him for the statue of Athena, and that, being acquitted on this charge, he was next denounced for what was clearly even worse, with irreverence and impiety; for among the figures on Athene's shield he had, by way of artist's signature, introduced a portrait of himself and of Pericles. Of the former charge the balances could acquit him, but against the latter there was no help. The portrait was there, as the Strangford shield shows it to-day. By one account he found it, therefore, a relief to retire before the political storm into the peaceful air of Elis; and Perikles, too, clever politician as he was, undoubtedly breathed freer when he was gone. The story related by Plutarch (Periclet, 31) is that in consequence of this charge Phidias died in prison, either a natural death or by poison.

But these statements cannot be reconciled with the tradition that, after completing his Athena, he was invited to undertake at Olympia what proved to be the grandest work of his life, the colossal gold and ivory statue of Zeus in the newly-erected temple. According to this same tradition he died at Olympia, and it may be inferred that he died much honoured there from the fact that his workshop was preserved in after times as a show-place for visitors, and that his descendants obtained an hereditary right to look after the great statue of Zeus.

As a means of reconciling these conflicting statements it has been supposed that the charge of appropriating the gold had been made before he went to Olympia, and the charge of sacrilege when he had returned thence to Athens. Others again prefer to accept the story of Plutarch as it stands, and to assign the stay of Phidias in Olympia to an early period of his life—previous to 455. As to the charge of theft, it could never have reached a public trial, because every one acquainted with the management of the public treasures knew that the gold of the Athena was so sculptured that it could be removed annually and weighed by the officials of the treasuries. Pericles told the Athenians (Thuc, ii. 13) that it could be removed and utilized for the war.

Phidias was famed in antiquity as an artist who could compose his figures and his groups so as to make the spectator feel that nature would not have done otherwise had nature been a sculptor. For composition of this kind there was necessary a most complete knowledge of form in all its details, since no part was Bo minute as not to affect the aspect of the whole. The Parthenon sculptures justify that fame. He must, however, have found finer opportunities in the colossal statues of gold and ivory, where the greater difficulty of duly distributing light and shade was rewarded with greater splendor of effect. In these statues the nude parts, such as the face, hands, and feet, were of ivory, the drapery of gold; and in the statue of Zeus at Olympia the gold was enriched with enamelled colors, and the impression of the whole is described by ancient writers with unbounded praise.

The statue of Zeus which graced the chief temple on the fair grounds at Olympia was one of his latest, perhaps his very latest, work. His gold-and-ivory statue of Athene Parthenos had been completed in time for the dedication of the Parthenon in 438 BC, and had become, along with the magnificent structure which sheltered it, the marvel of all Greece. The temple of Zeus at Olympia, which had been completed some twenty years before, and which was intended to be, as was fit and seemly for a Panhellenic sanctuary of the sovereign Panhellenic god, the grandest shelter Greece offered to any of her gods, now suffered in the comparison, and especially in that it lacked a worthy figure of its presiding deity. Nothing better, surely, could be done than to secure the services of the great artist who had made the Parthenon so famous, and commission him to make a Zeus that might, if possible, outshine the Athene. And the scheming of small politicians made him just at the time available.

The Zeus was evidently planned in rivalry with the Athene. Though no written words say so, the remains of the Zeus temple, as laid bare by the spade of the excavator, unmistakably betray it to the eyes of the archaeologist. Not only was it insisted that the figure must be constructed of the same precious ivory and gold, but, even though the available space was much smaller than in the broad cella of the Parthenon, the dimensions of the statue were not allowed to yield one whit to those of its Athenian prototype. No wonder the practical Strabo entertained some solicitude lest it rise from its throne and lift the roof. Supported on a pedestal three feet in height, it rose nearly forty feet above the temple floor.

The space in which the figure was to be placed was prepared so as to give the plainer materials of the temple something of the splendor attaching to the marble columns and flooring of the Parthenon. The dimensions of the space appear, also, to have been modeled after those in the Athenian temple. The floor in front of the statue was laid with stone brought specially from Attika. A raised hem of white Pentelic marble, frame; in a pavement of blue-black Eleusinian limestone, a material just at the time coming into vogue at Athens, and being used in parts of the Erechtheion and the Propylsea—these are some of the mute witnesses to the motives under which the work was planned.

The statue stood at the rear end of the cella, only a passageway of five feet being open behind it, and filled with its pedestal the entire width (twenty feet) of the central aisle. A barrier made of slabs of stone set up between the cella columns, and decorated on the inner side with paintings by Panaenos. inclosed the pedestal, together with a space about thirty feet deep in front of it. By way of the narrow outer aisles and the passageway at the rear one could make the circuit of the statue below, and by a gallery over the outer aisles could view it from the level of the shoulders above.

On the front of the base of the great statue of Zeus at Olympia there was a group in raised work, described by Pausanias in the following terms: "On this base there are figures in gold-work—Helios (the Sun) in his chariot, and Zeus and Hera and beside him (her ?) Charis (Grace); next to her comes Hermes, and next to him Hestia; and after Hestia is Eros, receiving Aphrodite as she walks up from the sea, and Peitho (Persuasion) is crowning Aphrodite. On it are also Apollo with Artemis; Athena and Herakles, and, finally, near the extremity of the base, Poseidon and Amphitrite ; also Selene (the Moon), riding, it seems to me, on a horse. Some people say the goddess is riding on a mule and not on a horse, and tell a silly story in explanation of the mule" (v. 11, 8). This is the sum of what is recorded or known concerning this group.

The statue itself, every vestige of it, has perished. Perhaps it was destroyed with the burning of the temple in Theodosius's days, or, if the Byzantine historian Kedrenos tells the truth, it was carried to Constantinople to grace the palace of one Lausos, and probably perished in its conflagration (475 AD). Aside from allusions in literature, the description of Pausanias, who visited Olympia in 173 AD, with the representations of the statue on Elean coins, and a fresco recently found at Eleusis, furnishes the substance of our present knowledge, and that, as such things go, is not too meager.

The winged Victory upon the extended left hand, the long eagle-crowned scepter in the right, the lily-figured mantle of gold and enamel falling from the left shoulder over the bare ivory body, the golden sandals, the decorated footstool resting on couch ing lions, the noble chair of state fashioned of ivory and ebony, and glittering with precious stones and golden pictures from the stories of the gods, the olive crown of green enamel upon the long, waving tresses of gold, and, chief of all, the radiant beauty of a benignant face which, in the majesty of peace, looked out upon assured dominion. The vision came to Pheidias, so he said, through Homer's words. He saw the lord of the world just as he gave the nod of kindly assurance—king, judge, and fine old gallant as he was—to Thetis, the witching bit of femininity who knelt in suppliance before him.

If ancient taste is to be consulted, there can be no question that the Zeus of Olympia was the supreme masterpiece of ancient art. Men could not tire of lavishing their praise upon it. To see it was joy to the eyes and refreshment to the soul. Traveler, poet, preacher, and soldier render but one verdict concerning it. Pausanias declines to report its dimensions; they are, after all, so inadequate to measure the impression which the beholder's eye receives. Epiktetos deems him unfortunate who dies without seeing it. Philip's epigram in the Anthology reasons thus: "God came to earth that thou, 0 Pheidias, might'st discern his form, or else thou hast ascended into heaven to see him."

A Roman soldier, Emilius Paulus, on seeing the statue was overwhelmed with admiration, and expressed his judgment in plain Roman style: "I expected much, but the truth is greater than my expectation. Pheidias alone has copied a Zeus from Homer." But the finest word is that of Dio Chrysostom: "Methinks if one who is heavyladen in soul, who hath drained the cup of misfortune and sorrow in life, and whom sweet sleep visiteth no more, were to stand before this figure, he would forget all the griefs and hardships that fall upon the life of man."

Phidias and his work came straight from the heart of Periklean Athens. The fifth century and he had grown up together, and they abode together most of their days. His earlier art occupied itself in crowning the youthful century's pride and joy at the defeat of Persia, and the best strength of his manhood and old age was devoted to forwarding the century's supreme endeavorthat of making the Athens of Perikles a fit abode of empire. In the chorus of artists that Perikles had chosen to help glorify the old citadel of Athens, and make it the becoming home of the gods, who are the state, Pheidias was the choragus, like Rafaello at the court of Leo X. The spirit of his art was in fine accord with the best temper of the age. Its subjects belonged to poetry, not to prose; but while he fashioned the forms of gods rather than of men, he conceived them in grace and beauty as well as majesty, and to plastic art was a Sophokles rather than an AEschylos.

Statue of Zeus at Olympia Statue of Zeus at Olympia

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Page last modified: 29-09-2012 18:38:00 ZULU