Statue of Zeus at Olympia – Wonder 4/7 (ca. 432 BC)

By: The Scribe on Thursday, May 17, 2007

Statue of Zeus

Created by the Classical sculptor Phidias in the 5th century, the statue of Zeus at Olympia was a tourist destination for the ancient Greeks as early as, well…its completion! Phidias was famous in ancient Greece for his incredible gold and ivory statues – however the statue of Zeus was considered his greatest accomplishment.

Housed in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the chryselephantine statue reportedly took Phidias 12 years to complete. The frame of the statue was likely made of wood, with ivory sheets used to create the white flesh of the god, embellished with gold sheets for drapery. At 12 meters (40 feet) tall, the statue occupied the entire rear of the temple aisle and nearly touched the ceiling.

Phidias’ Zeus was seated on a wooden throne, with ivory, ebony and gold inlay; Zeus’ right hand would have held a small statue of Nike, with an eagle-topped scepter in his left hand. His head would have been crowned with an olive wreath, and in true Greek style, on the god’s feet were sandals – in this case, made of gold. In front of the statue, Phidias placed a shallow pool of oil, in order to prevent the ivory from eroding in the humid climate.

The Greek historian Strabo commented on the statue’s height in one his writings: “it seems that if Zeus were to stand up, he would unroof the temple.” In fact, according to Strabo, Zeus’ entire chair was carved with images from Greek mythology: Apollo and Artemis killing the children of Niobe, sphinxes, and the three Graces.

The statue remained in the cella of the temple for upwards of 800 years, and the cause of its destruction is heavily debated. Some scholars assert that it was destroyed by fire around 475 AD, while others suggest it was destroyed along with the temple itself – probably by earthquake – sometime in the 5th century AD.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: The Mausoleum


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