In ancient Greece, every large community had at least one temple dedicated to the worship and veneration of Zeus, but few ancient temples were as grand and elaborate as the Statue of Zeus located at Olympia, the birthplace of the original Olympic Games. The Greeks were well-known for their penchant for creating large architectural masterpieces, many of which are still in existence today, and the temple to Zeus at Olympia was one of the most noteworthy examples of Greek monumental architecture.
The statue that is now considered one of the original 7 wonders of the world was housed within a perfectly proportioned Greek temple that included 72 Doric columns bordering the structure. Visitors to the temple passed through a set of grand bronze doors into the inner chamber that housed the statue. The statue alone reportedly took approximately 12 years to complete and was finished around the year 435 B.C. The temple and statue were part of a larger complex of temples at Olympia, a major religious and cultural center of the ancient world that included shrines dedicated to many other gods and goddesses.
Phidias, a sculptor with a history of creating monumental statues, was commissioned to produce a statue of Zeus for the temple. He depicted the mythical god seated on a large throne with an eagle-topped staff in his left hand and a statue of the goddess Nike in his right. The statue of Zeus is estimated to have been between 40 and 50 feet in height, as tall as a modern five-story building. The remains of Phidias’ workshop were discovered near the site of the temple in the twentieth century and provided a wealth of information to archeologists about the construction of this colossal work of art.
Unlike many other statues of the time that were carved from stone or cast from metal, the statue of Zeus contained in the temple at Olympia was constructed of ivory pieces mounted to a wooden frame. It is believed that the ivory was formed into the proper shapes using a combination of moisture and heat. The statue and likely the entire temple complex were accented with copious amounts of gold leaf and trim. Phidias took special care when fashioning the statue’s facial expression. People who visited frequently reported that it seemed Zeus’ eyes penetrated into the very soul of the observer.
Historical descriptions of the temple seem to indicate that the structure was similar in appearance to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, although the statue of Zeus was much larger than that of Lincoln, and the Lincoln Memorial is not fully enclosed on all sides. Legend has it that Phidias asked for Zeus’ blessing upon completing the statue, and the god responded by unleashing a bolt of lightning, the location of which was commemorated with a special marker. The statue of Zeus remained in its original location for over 800 years. It is believed that it was removed to the city of Constantinople around A.D. 450 where it was lost to history like six of the other 7 wonders of the world.
Visiting the Statue of Zeus in Ancient Times
From the time of its completion, the statue was one of the ancient world’s most popular pilgrimage destinations and tourist attractions. The site remained popular even after Greece was absorbed into the Roman Empire although visitors to the site decreased after the Olympic Games were outlawed by the Roman Emperor in the fourth century. Accounts of visits were recorded by many ancient travelers, including a host of Greek and Roman dignitaries whose writings have survived until modern times. Almost every account includes a sense of awe and wonder upon viewing such a magnificent monument to the ancient world’s most powerful god.