The pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia are some of the best surviving examples of early Classical Greek sculpture. The pediments were completed c.460 BCE and comprise of forty-two figures in total. Unlike in our Cast Gallery, the originals were placed in the triangular gables at each end of the roof, high above the heads of viewers on the ground.
The east pediment featured a scene especially appropriate at the home of the ancient Olympic Games, where athletes competed in view of the temple from 776 BCE to 393 CE: here, preparations are being made for a chariot race, which explains why there are horses flanking the five central figures.
On the west pediment is depicted a 'centauromachy' – a battle between the half-man, half-horse centaurs and the Lapiths. On both sides, a god stands tall in the very centre of the pediment, Zeus on the east and Apollo on the west; Apollo, promising to restore order as the god of rationality and self-control, looks nonplussed by the chaos surrounding him. In short, the decoration of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was carefully calibrated to its context of sport and competition.
Set beneath the pediments, designed to be viewed against them, were a series of carved metopes – individual square panels lined up in a row, with six on each side of the temple. These depict the Labours of Herakles: whatever the human agonies depicted above in the pediments, whether implied or shown, here is testimony to the endurance of the human spirit in the face of strenuous trials.
Although it was built in the fifth century BCE, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia continued in use until the closure of the Olympic games in 393 CE. In fact, one of the best descriptions of the temple was written in the second century CE by a Greek traveller named Pausanias, who describes his visit to Olympia and a number of the (by then centuries old) Greek sculptures and other dedications he sees there.
Find the pediments of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in Bay C
View the east pediment on the online catalogue
View the west pediment on the online catalogue
View the metopes on the online catalogue
Pausanias, Description of Greece 5.7
R. Osborne 1998, Archaic and Classical Greek Art (Oxford University Press): 169–174
N. Spivey 1997, Greek Art (Phaidon): 217–224
S. Woodford 1988, An Introduction to Greek Art (University of Cornell Press): 91–103
J. Boardman (ed.) The Oxford History of Classical Art (Oxford University Press): 92–94
In the ancient world, there were many temples dedicated to Zeus, the king of the Greek gods. But there was only one temple to Zeus that housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was home to one of greatest sculptural achievements of ancient history. The Statue of Zeus at Olympia represented the pinnacle of Classical sculptural design, as well as showcased the engineering that was required to construct such a massive chunk of marble and gold.
The Olympic Games
The city-state of Olympia was a center of religious worship, and was also the birthplace of the Olympic games. Believed to have begun in 776 BCE, the Olympic games demonstrated the physical prowess as well as the political strength of the participating Greek poleis. The Olympic games were considered to be a part of religious rituals that revolved around the king of the Greek gods, Zeus. So it was only fitting that a grand temple and an even grander cult representation were constructed for the many Greeks who made pilgrimages there in order to worship their father god.
Temple of Zeus
The temple of Zeus was built between 466-456 BCE, during the height of Classical Greek architecture and artistic endeavors. It was designed by Libon, an architect from neighboring Elis. The temple was constructed of local shell stone in the Doric style, the predominant architectural style of the time, and the same style as the Parthenon in Athens. The temple itself acted merely as a protective home for the real showpiece, the cult statue of Zeus himself.
The renowned Greek sculptor Pheidias brought Zeus to life with his creation around 435 BCE.
The renowned Greek sculptor Pheidias brought Zeus to life with his creation around 435 BCE. After creating the cult statue of Athena for the Parthenon, Pheidias left Athens in shame as a result of a political scandal and an erroneous embezzlement charge. He immediately came to Olympia to begin work on Zeus.
Pheidias had developed a technique that allowed his enormous creations of ivory and precious metals to be formed without crumbling under their own weight. Beginning with a wooden frame built on site, he would lay thin plates of ivory soaked in a liquid to make them moldable, and place them upon the mold along with sheets of gold (for Zeus draping clothing). The pieces matched up perfectly, and the joints were nearly invisible.
The appearance of the statue must have been imposing, impressive, and awe-inspiring. The seated statue was over 40 feet tall. Zeus' throne was just as impressive, constructed of cedar and inlaid with ivory, gold, and ebony. He held a statue of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, in his left hand, and a staff with an eagle perched atop it in his right hand.
Later History & Loss
The statue inspired reverence for over 800 years in its temple home in Olympia. Kings and even Roman Emperors who gazed upon it were known to cry in veneration. In fact, the Roman EmperorCaligula even tried to have the statue taken for himself in the late 30s CE, with no success. In the 450s CE, it was taken from the temple to Constantinople, where it sat in a palace. The palace was destroyed by fire in 462 CE, and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world was unfortunately lost forever.
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