The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
statue of Zeus in the temple at Olympia stood more than
40 feet high (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2011)
In ancient times one of the Greeks most mportant
festivals, the Olympic Games, was held every four years in honor
of the King of their gods, Zeus. Like our modern Olympics, athletes
traveled from distant lands, including Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt
and Sicily, to compete. The Olympics were first started in 776
B.C. and held at a shrine to Zeus located on the western coast
of Greece in a region called Peloponnesus. The games helped to
unify the Greek city-states and a sacred truce was declared. Safe
passage was given to all traveling to the site, called Olympia,
for the season of the games.
Temple at Olympia
The site consisted of a stadium - where the competitions
were actually done - and a sacred grove, or Altis, where a number
of temples were located. The shrine to Zeus here was simple in
the early years, but as time went by and the games increased in
importance, it became obvious that a new, larger temple, one worthy
of the King of the gods, was needed. Between 470 and 460 B.C.,
construction on a new temple was started. The designer was Libon
of Elis and his masterpiece, The Temple of Zeus, was completed
in 456 B.C..
to Greek God Zeus
5th Century A.D.
around 40 ft. (12m)
|Made of: Ivory
and gold-plated plates on wooden frame.
of the workshop where it was built was found during an excavation
in the 1950's
This temple followed a design used on many large
Grecian temples. It was similar to the Parthenon in Athens and
the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The temple was built on a raised,
rectangular platform. Thirteen large columns supported the roof
along the sides and six supported it on each end. A gently-peaked
roof topped the building. The triangles, or "pediments," created
by the sloped roof at the ends of the building were filled with
sculpture. Under the pediments, just above the columns, was more
sculpture depicting the twelve labors of Heracles, six on each
end of the temple.
Though the temple was considered one of the best
examples of the Doric design because of its style and the quality
of the workmanship, it was decided the temple alone was too simple
to be worthy of the King of the gods. To remedy this, a statue
was commissioned for the interior. It would be a magnificent statue
of Zeus that would become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient
Worthy of the King of the Gods
The sculptor chosen for this great task was a man
named Phidias. He had already rendered a forty-foot high statue
of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon in Athens and had also
done much of the sculpture on the exterior of that temple. After
his work in Athens was done, Phidias traveled to Olympia around
432 B.C. to start on what was to be considered his best work,
the statue of Zeus. On arriving he set up a workshop to the west
of the temple. He would take the next 12 years to complete the
According to accounts, the statue when finished
was located at the western end of the temple. It was 22 feet wide
and more than 40 feet tall. The figure of Zeus was seated on an
elaborate throne. His head nearly grazed the roof. The historian
Strabo wrote, "...although the temple itself is very large, the
sculptor is criticized for not having appreciated the correct
proportions. He has depicted Zeus seated, but with the head almost
touching the ceiling, so that we have the impression that if Zeus
moved to stand up he would unroof the temple..."
Lincoln Memorial with its single large statue and columns
probably is very much like the temple of Zeus except the
statue of the King of the Gods was more than double the
height of Lincoln.
Others who viewed that temple disagreed with Strabo
and found the proportions very effective in conveying the god's
size and power. By filling nearly all the available space, the
statue was made to seem even larger than it really was.
Philo of Byzantium, who wrote about all of the wonders,
was certainly impressed. "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
In 97 A.D. another visitor Dio Crysostomos declared
the image was so powerful that, "If a man, with a heavy heart
from grief and sorrow in life, will stand in front of the statue,
he will forget all these."
In his right hand the statue held the figure of
Nike (the goddess of victory) and in its left was a scepter "inlaid
with every kind of metal..." which was topped with an eagle. Perhaps
even more impressive than the statue itself was the throne made
out of gold, ebony, ivory and inlaid with precious stones. Carved
into the chair were figures of Greek gods and mystical animals,
including the half man/half lion sphinx.
of the Statue
engraving made by Philippe Galle in 1572 was his interpretation
of the statue and its associated temple.
The figure's skin was composed of ivory and the
beard, hair and robe of gold. Construction was by a technique
known as chryselephantine where gold-plated bronze and ivory sections
were attached to a wooden frame. Because the weather in Olympia
was so damp, the statue required care so that the humidity would
not crack the ivory. It is said that for centuries the decedents
of Phidias held the responsibility for this maintenance. To keep
it in good shape the statue was constantly treated with olive
oil kept in a special reservoir in the floor of the temple that
also served as a reflecting pool. Light reflected off the pool
from the doorway may also have had the effect of illuminating
The Greek traveler Pausanias recorded that when
the statue was finally completed, Pheidias asked Zeus for a sign
that the work was to his liking. The god replied by touching the
temple with a thunderbolt that did no damage. According to the
account a bronze hydria (water vessel) was placed at the spot
where the thunderbolt hit the structure.
Besides the statue, there was little inside the
temple. The Greeks preferred the interior of their shrines to
be simple. The feeling it gave was probably very much like the
Lincoln Memorial or Jefferson Memorial with their lofty marble
columns and single, large statues. However with a height greater
than 40 feet, the statue of Zesus was more than twice as tall
as Lincoln's likeness at his memorial on the mall in Washington
Copies of the statue were made, but none survive,
though pictures found on coins give researchers clues about its
1908 artist's conception of the temple at Olympia in Greece.
Despite his magnificent work at Olympia, Phidias
ran into trouble when he returned home. He was a close friend
with Pericles, who ruled the Athens. Enemies of Pericles, unable
to strike at the ruler directly, attacked his friends instead.
Phidias was accused of stealing gold meant for the statue of Athena.
When that charge failed to stick, they claimed he had carved his
image, and that of Pericles into the sculpture found on the Parthenon.
This would have been improper in the Greeks' eyes and Phidias
was thrown into jail where he died awaiting trial.
His masterpiece lived on, however. It was damaged
in an earthquake in 170 B.C. and repaired. However, much of its
grandeur was probably lost after Emperor Constantine decreed that
gold be stripped from all pagan shrines after he converted to
Christianity in the early fourth century A.D.. Then in 392 A.D.
the Olympics were abolished by Emperor Theodosius I of Rome, a
Christian who saw the games as a pagan rite. After that according
to the Byzantine historian Georgios Kedrenos, the statue was moved
by a wealthy Greek named Lausus to the city of Constantinople
where it became part of his private collection of classical art.
It is believed that the remains of the statue were destroyed by
a fire that swept the city in 475 A.D.. However, other sources
say the statue was still at the Olympic Temple when it burned
down in 425 A.D..
The first archaeological work on the Olympia site
was done by a group of French scientists in 1829. They were able
to locate the outlines of the temple and found fragments of the
sculpture showing the labors of Heracles. These pieces were shipped
to Paris where they are still on display today at the Louvre.
The next expedition came from Germany in 1875 worked
at Olympia for five summers. Over that period they were able to
map out most of the buildings there, discovered more fragments
of the temple's sculpture, and located the remains of the pool
in the floor that contained the oil for the statue.
In the 1950's an excavation uncovered the workshop
of Phidias which was discovered beneath an early Christian Church.
Archaeologists found sculptor's tools, a pit for casting bronze,
clay molds, modeling plaster and even a portion of one of the
elephant's tusks which had supplied the ivory for the statue.
Many of the clay molds, which had been used to shape the gold
plates, bore serial numbers which must have been used to show
the place of the plates in the design.
19th century expedition poses on the jumbled ruins of the
Temple of Zeus.
Today the stadium at the site has been restored.
Little is left of the temple, though, except a few jumbled columns
on the ground. Of the statue, which was perhaps the most wonderful
work at Olympia, all is now completely gone.
Cyclorama: The Temple of Zeus
Wonders Tour Virtual Postcards
Copyright Lee Krystek, 1998-2011.