ca. 490-ca. 430 B.C.
Phidias, an Athenian sculptor, was one of the most famous artists in the ancient world. In addition to creating numerous impressive sculptures of gods and goddesses, Phidias oversaw the sculptural decoration of the stone buildings on the Athenian Acropolis. The only known surviving examples of his work are the marble statues of the Parthenon, known as the Elgin marbles, which were carved either by Phidias himself or by other sculptors following his designs.
Phidias’s early works included a group of bronze statues at Delphi that celebrated the Battle of Marathon, and a 30-foot tall bronze statue of Athena, the patron* goddess of Athens, on the Acropolis. He also created a statue of Athena on the Greek island of Lemnos in the Aegean Sea.Although these works were impressive, Phidias was best known for his later statues of Athena at the Parthenon at Athens and of Zeus, the king of the gods, at the temple of Zeus at Olympia. Both statues were made of gold and ivory covering a wooden frame, and both were decorated with precious metals, glass, and paint. The statue of Zeus, the larger of the two, was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The statue of Athena at the Parthenon is known from descriptions of the original and from a number of copies. The original statue was nearly 40 feet high and covered in nearly a ton of gold. Begun in 447 B.C., it took nearly ten years to complete. Athena held a figure of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, in her right hand and a spear and shield in her left hand. Her shield was covered inside and out with Amazons and giants. The snakehaired monster Medusa adorned her breastplate, and several other mythological creatures decorated her helmet.
The statue of Zeus at Olympia was probably completed around 430 B.C. Although the original no longer exists, vase paintings and coins that depict the statue indicate that Zeus was seated on a lavishly decorated throne, holding a figure of Nike in his right hand and a staff in his left. Amazons adorned his footstool.
Because of Phidias’s versatility as an artist, the Athenian statesman Pericles placed Phidias in charge of the artistic program on the Acropolis in the early 440s B.C. Phidias oversaw the sculptural decoration of the magnificent temple of the Parthenon, as well as other religious and civic structures. Because of Phidias’s closeness to Pericles, Pericles’ enemies accused Phidias of stealing precious materials that had been supplied for one of his statues. Rather than face imprisonment, Phidias fled to Olympia. While in exile, he created his statue of Zeus. His workshop in Olympia has been discovered, as have his tools and molds. A drinking cup inscribed with his name has even been found at the workshop.
* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter
Not long after he completed the statue of Zeus, Phidias died or was killed while still in exile. His students continued to dominate Athenian sculpture for another generation. Phidias’s work was also the chief influence on later Hellenistic* and Roman sculpture. (See also Architecture, Greek; Sculpture, Greek.)
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.