The Wonders of the World: The Statue of Zeus Olympia

Artistic Representation

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece is one of the Ancient Wonders of the World.  It was created by the famous Greek sculptor Phidias circa 450 BC.  The statue was located at the site of the Olympic Games where once every four years since 776 BC truce was declared across Greece to give safe passage to the athletes to travel to compete in the holy games.

Statue of Zeus on Coin

The sculpture was considered the most famous artistic work in all of Greece and the pagan Greeks believed the statue of Zeus on Olympus was the god himself. Philo of Byzantium wrote “Whereas we just wonder at the other six wonders, we kneel in front of this one in reverence, because the execution of the skill is as incredible as the image of Zeus is holy…”

The statue of Zeus housed in a temple built on a raised, rectangular platform. Thirteen large columns supported the roof along the sides and six supported on each end with a pediment that depicted the twelve labors of Heracles.  The sculptor Phidias who had already worked on the Parthenon in Athens took 12 years to complete the project.

Another View of Statue

In the 2nd century AD, Pausanias wrote a very detailed description of the sculpture and its throne. Images of the statue survive on ancient coins.  The seated statue of Zeus itself was about 43 feet tall and 22 feet wide. The technique by which the statue was constructed is chryselephantine, where gold-plated bronze and ivory sections were attached to a wooden frame. The figure’s skin itself was of ivory and the beard, hair and robe of gold.  Zeus’ cedar wood throne was adorned with gold, ebony, ivory and inlaid with precious stones. Zeus held the figure of crowned Nike, the goddess of victory and his left hand held a scepter with an eagle perched on the top. Carved into the chair were figures of Greek gods and mystical animals.

The statue was damaged by an earthquake in 170 BC and repaired. In the early 4th century AD, the Emperor Constantine ordered that all gold be stripped from pagan shrines. One story claims that after the Olympics were abolished in 392 AD by a Theodosius, a Christian Emperor who viewed the games as a pagan rite, it was taken to Constantinople where it was destroyed by fire in 475 AD.  Others claim that it burned with the temple in 425. In the 1950s, the workshop at Olympia was discovered where Phidias sculpted the statue.  Among the tools and moulds, a cup was discovered inscribed “I belong to Pheidias.”

Tomorrow, Lighthouse of Alexandria   Rita Bay

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