Statue of Zeus
In ancient times the Greeks held one of
their most important festivals, The Olympic Games, in honour of the King of
their gods, Zeus. Like our modern Olympics, athletes travelled from
distant lands, including Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and Sicily, to compete in the
games. 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, held every four years, helped to unify the Greek
city-states. Sacred truce was declared during the games and wars were stopped.
Safe passage was given to all travelling to the site, called Olympia,
for the season of the games.
The site consisted of a stadium (for the
games) and a sacred grove, or Altis, where temples were located. The shrine to
Zeus 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.. 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 labours of Heracles, six on each end.
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- a magnificent statue of Zeus that would become one of the
Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
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 travelled to Olympia to start on what was considered his
best work, the statue of Zeus. On arriving he set up a workshop to the
west of the temple.
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 labours 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
moulds, modelling plaster and even a portion of one of the elephant's tusks
which had supplied the ivory for the statue. Many of the clay moulds, 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.
Today the stadium at the site has been
restored. Little is left of the temple, though, except a few columns. Of the
statue, which was perhaps the most wonderful work at Olympia, all is now