The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

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The Third Wonder of the World

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, also called Olympian Zeus, is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The statue of Zeus built for the temple located in Olympia, Greece, was created by the Greek sculptor, Phidias, during the Greek Classical period in the fifth century BC, most likely around the year 432 BC. The Olympian Zeus is also considered to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, along with the Great Pyramid and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Background

The Statue of Zeus is believed to have been 12 metres, or 39 feet tall. According to the Greek historian and geographer Strabo, it would have “unroofed the temple,” had it stood up. The Statue of Zeus was a chryselephantine sculpture. This term refers to a special kind of cult statue built in Greece and the Aegean in early and middle antiquity. The word “chryselephantine” comes from the Greek words “chrysos” and “elephantinos” which translate into English as gold and ivory. The construction technique for statues of this type involves the creation of a wood frame, which was overlaid with thin pieces of carved ivory, gold leaf and fine fabrics. Both precious and semi-precious stones were also used to adorn chryselephantine statues such as the Olympian Zeus. Designated people lived at the temples to protect such rare and expensive sculptures as the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Ancient Sources

Due to its wood and ivory construction, the Olympian Zeus has not survived to the present day. However, a very detailed description of what the Olympian Zeus may have looked like was written down by the traveller Pausanius, sometime in the Second Century AD. He wrote that Zeus sat on a throne made of cedar wood. He also described how Zeus was wreathed in olive branches. In the statue’s right hand was a smaller statue of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, made of solid gold. Accent pieces such as this one were common on large Greek sculptures. The small statues formed a sacred treasury and when times were financially good, up to six might be kept on hand. If times were hard they would be melted down for gold bullion, or used to mint coins to pay the temple maintenance staff.

In his biography of the Roman general, Aemilius Paulus, Plutarch wrote that upon seeing the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Paulus was “moved to his very soul, as if he had beheld the god in person.” The Greek orator Dio wrote that one glimpse of the statue could make a person forget all their earthly problems.

There are also numerous legends ascribing supernatural force as Phidias’ inspiration for the Olympian Zeus. Some say that he tried to climb Mt. Olympus in an attempt to see Zeus, while others claim that Zeus appeared to him in a dream. Phidias himself is believed to have been inspired by Homer’s Iliad.

Disappearence

The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Olympian Zeus have been lost to the mists of history. However, numerous ancient and medieval sources claim to record the final fate of the statue. For example the 11th Century Byzantine historian Georgios Kedrenos wrote that the statue was dismantled and taken to Constantinople, where it was destroyed in a fire in 475 AD. Other sources claim that the statue was lost when the Temple of Zeus at Olympia burned down in 425 AD. Late in the Second Century, Lucian of Samosata wrote, “they have laid hands upon your person at Olympia, my lord High-Thunderer and you have not the energy to wake the dogs or call in the neighbours…”

Works Cited

Ashmawy, Alaa The Seven Wonders: The Statue of Zeus at Olympia from http://www.authenticwonders.com. Retrieved on Mar.9/09

Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.11.1-.10

Chrysostom, Dio.Discourses.Loeb Classical Library, 1939. Pg. 57-59

Zamarovský, Vojtech. Za sedmi divy sveta. pp. 186.

Georgius Kedrenos, Historiarum Compendium §322c, in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 34, vol. I, p. 564

Schobel 1965; Richter 1966.

Lucian’s dialogue Timon the Misanthrope, translated by H. W. Fowler And F. G. Fowler

 

The copyright of the article The Statue of Zeus at Olympia in Ancient Art is owned by Terry Long. Permission to republish The Statue of Zeus at Olympia in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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