Statue of Zeus at Olympia


The monumental statue of Zeus at Olympia in Greece was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Created in the 430s BCE under the supervision of the master Greek sculptor Phidias, the huge ivory and gold statue was bigger even than that of Athena in the Parthenon. Worshipped by pilgrims from across the Mediterranean, the statue inspired countless imitations and defined the standard representation of Zeus in Greek and Roman art in sculpture, on coins, pottery, and gemstones. Lost in later Roman times following its removal to Constantinople, Phidias’ masterpiece captivated the ancient world for 1,000 years and was the must-see sight for anyone who attended the ancient Olympic Games.

Phidias, Master sculptor

The master sculptor and architect Phidias (also spelled Pheidias, active c. 465-425 BCE), who had already supervised the construction of the Parthenon (447-432 BCE) in Athens and its giant statue of the city’s patron goddess Athena, was called on again to produce a similarly monumental sculpture of Zeus. The location was to be Olympia in the western Peloponnese of Greece where a huge brand new temple awaited. It was there that, every four years, the PanHellenic Olympic Games (776 BCE – 393 CE) were dedicated. Olympia was then controlled by the polis (city-state) of Elis and the sacred site attracted thousands of travelers, pilgrims, and sports fans from across the Mediterranean. The new cult statue and temple to house it would be fine additions, adding prestige to Olympia at a time when there were still rival games held at other sites such as DelphiNemea, and Isthmia near Corinth. In addition, a magnificent dedication to Zeus, father of the Olympian gods and supreme deity of the ancient Greek religion, could only be a positive for the Eleans’ and indeed all of ancient Greece’s spiritual and material well-being.

Phidias was the perfect choice for what would be a challenging project requiring hundreds of craftsmen and several years of work. The master sculptor moved to Olympia, and excavations in the 20th century CE revealed his workshop, which contained a simple red-figure Attic cup or wine jug (oinochoe) inscribed in Greek Pheidio eimi, “I belong to Phidias”. The workshop also contained ivory tools, a small hammer for working gold, and molds for pieces of a large female statue.


The Temple & statue of Zeus at Olympia

In the 5th century BCE, the sanctuary of Olympia reached its peak of prosperity and a massive Doric 6 x 13 column temple was begun c. 460 BCE. Completed c. 457 BCE, it was designed by Libon of Elis and it was the biggest in Greece at that time, measuring over 20 meters (65.5 ft) in height, 64.12 x 27.68 m (210 x 91 ft) along its sides with columns 10.53 m (34.5 ft) in height and 2.25 metres (7 ft) in diameter at their base. The pediments of the temple displayed magnificent sculpture: on the east side the mythical chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos and on the western pediment a battle scene with centaurs (Centauromachy) with the majestic central figure of Apollo. Metopes from the temple represented the labors of Hercules. Many of these decorative figures sculptures survive today and can be seen at the museum at the archaeological site of Olympia.

The Statue

In the religion of ancient Greece, a temple was considered the dwelling place of a god, as its name naos (‘dwelling’) suggests. Thus, the statue of the deity inside was far more important than the temple itself. The figure was typically placed in the center of the building so that when its doors were opened it could look out upon the sacrifices and ceremonies being performed just outside in that god’s honor. Whether the worshippers actually believed that the god somehow inhabited the statue is a moot point, but certainly prayers and ritual gestures were directly addressed to it.

It is also interesting to note that one of the common names for a statue in Greek was zōon or “living thing”, such as the endeavor of the sculptor to capture living matter in unfeeling bronze or marble. Certainly, Phidias’ vision was of a statue so large and gleaming in gold that it would be nothing short of an awe-inspiring epiphany to the onlooker, it would provide as close a link as possible between humanity and the divine.


The statue of mighty Zeus was over 12 m (40 ft) high and represented the god seated on a throne. It was bigger even than Phidias’ Athena Parthenos in Athens. The Zeus statue, like Athena, was chryselephantine, that is a combination of gold and ivory over a wooden core, with the god’s skin (face, torso, arms, and legs) being in ivory and his beard, robes, and staff rendered in brilliant gold, applied in hammered sheets. Fine details were picked out using a wide variety of materials: silvercopper, glass (for the decorative lilies of the god’s robes), ebony, enamel, paint, and jewels.

The clay molds discovered in Phidias’ workshop for a similar statue suggest that it was first erected there in pieces – the size of the workshop is exactly the same dimensions as the inner cella of the temple – and then reassembled at its final destination. The wooden core could not have been fully sculpted or the molds would have been unnecessary to shape the outer gold pieces.

The most complete description of the sculpture from ancient sources is to be found in the Description of Greece by the 2nd-century CE Greek geographer and traveler Pausanias:

The god sits on the throne, and he is made of gold and ivory. On his head lies a garland which is a copy of olive shoots. In his right hand, he carries a Victory [Nike], which, like the statue, is of ivory and gold; she wears a ribbon and—on her head—a garland. In the left hand of the god is a scepter, ornamented with every kind of metal, and the bird sitting on the scepter is the eagle. The sandals also of the god are of gold, as is likewise his robe. On the robe are embroidered figures of animals and the flowers of the lily. The throne is adorned with gold and with jewels, to say nothing of ebony and ivory. Upon it are painted figures and wrought images. (Book 5, Ch. 11)

Zeus’ throne – made using ivory, ebony, and gold, and encrusted with glass and gems – was embellished with relief sculpture depicting a wide range of figures from Greek mythology, many of which were considered the offspring of Zeus. There are the Graces (Charites), the Seasons (Horae), various Nikes, sphinxes, Amazons, and the children of Niobe. The screens between the legs of the throne were painted by Phidias’ brother Panaenus (Panainos) and depicted the Labours of Hercules, Achilles with Penthesilea, Hippodamia with Sterope, Salamis, and scenes of Greece. The god rested his feet upon a footstool which was decorated with a battle scene involving Theseus fighting Amazons (Amazonomachy).

The figure of Zeus, throne, and stool, were all placed on a base of black Eleusinian marble which measured 9.93 x 6.25 meters (32.5 x 20.5 ft) along its sides. The base was decorated with scenes of the Birth of Aphrodite. Finally, the base was signed by Phidias with the words “Phidias, son of Charmides, an Athenian, made me”.

The statue of Zeus at Olympia stood in front of a shallow pool of diluted or pure olive oil (as opposed to water in the case of the Athena Parthenos) which helped keep a moist atmosphere and impede any cracking of the ivory pieces. The reflection of the statue in the pool was a bonus side-effect to add to its aura of other-worldliness. The finished statue was dedicated c. 430 BCE.  Read More about statue of Zeus at Olympia Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

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