Apr 26, 2011

Seven Wonders of the Ancient World - Part Three

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia

When the Temple of Zeus was completed at Olympia in 456 B.C., it was considered too simple to be worthy of the king of the gods. A statue of Zeus was commissioned from a sculpture named Phidias, already famous for his forty-foot high statue of the goddess Athena. It took him 12 years but the project was completed by 435 B.C.

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 statue.

Besides the statue, there was little inside the temple. The Greeks preferred the interior of their shrines to be simple. The seated statue was 12 meters (43 feet) tall, and occupied half of the width of the aisle of the temple built to house it. "It seems that if Zeus were to stand up," the geographer Strabo noted early in the 1st century BC, "he would unroof the temple."

The statue was made of ivory, a symbol of the Greeks' reverence for the king of the gods. The throne on which Zeus sat was made of cedarwood and was inlaid with ebony, ivory, gold, and jewels. Zeus held in his left hand a shining sceptre, on top of which an eagle perched, ready to take off at any moment and do the god's bidding. In Zeus's left hand rested a statue of goddess of victory Nike.

No copy in marble or bronze has survived, though there are recognizable but approximate versions on coins of nearby Elis and on Roman coins give researchers clues about its appearance.

Plutarch, in his Life of the Roman general Aemilius Paulus, records that the victor over Macedon, when he beheld the statue, “was moved to his soul, as if he had seen the god in person,” while the 1st century AD Greek orator Dio Chrysostom declared that a single glimpse of the statue would make a man forget all his earthly troubles.

The statue of Zeus lasted as an inspiration to and destination for thousands for many years. It resisted many attempts to usurp its authority in the eyes of its visitors.

The Roman Emperor Caligula decreed that all such statues of gods were to be brought to Rome so that the heads could be removed and his own put in their place. The scaffolding attached to the statue collapsed, accompanied by, according to legend, a loud laughing noise. The temple and statue survived earthquakes and other natural disasters until it was uprooted and carted off to Constantinople, in A.D. 394. It is believed that the remains of the statue were destroyed by a fire that swept the city in 475 A.D.

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