The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

The Temple of ZeusKing of the gods, and associated with sky and thunder. He basically looked after everything, and could do as he liked. at Olympia was constructed during the 5C BC, which was a time of great prosperity for the sanctuary. Other buildings were added during this period, but the Temple of Zeus took pride of place.

This remarkable structure suffered at the hands of Christian zealots in the 5C AD and serious earthquakes in subsequent years. Even though all you can see today is the base of the temple and fallen columns, it is still an impressive sight.

The best in the Peloponnese

temple zeus
Impressive column drum

Over the centuries the Temple of Zeus became greatly admired both for it's size - it was the largest temple in the PeloponneseA large peninsula forming the part of the country south of the Gulf of Corinth - and for it's grace and beauty. The statue of Zeus which was added was one of the most admired in the ancient world.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was designed by the architect Libon from Elis. It was constructed between 470BC and 460BC. It was built of local shell limestone covered by imitation marble stucco, also made of lime.

The temple stood on a crepidomaThe platform upon which the building is erected. It usually consists of three levels.. The front of the base of the temple on the east was breached by an access ramp. The gabled roof was covered by marble tiles, and gargoyles on the roof in the shape of lion heads were also made of marble. Initially the marble came from the island of Paros, but because repairs had to be frequently made because of the numerous earthquakes they used marble from mount Pentelicus near Athens.

Pediment carvings

temple zeus plan

The marble statues of the east pedimentThe triangular section above the columns at the front and rear of the temple. show the preparations for the chariot race between the Olympic heroes Oinomaos and Pelops. The statues on the western pediment are of the fight between the Laphthae and Centaurs which erupted during the marriage of Pirithous and Deidameia.

The metopesA rectangular element (usually scuplted) between two triglyphs, on the upper part of a building. above the entrances showed the twelve labours of Heracles. These have been partially restored, and are excellent examples of the sort of Greek art which occurred after the Persian Wars.

The statue of Zeus

Remarkable though the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was, one of the main reasons for it's fame in classical times and succeeding centuries was the famous colossal chryselephantineFrom the Greek words for gold and ivory. Often used to describe cult statues where gold and ivory were applied to a marble or stone sculpture. statue of Zeus. This was finished and placed in the temple in about 435BC.

temple zeus elevation
Showing proportions as seen from the east

The statue was the work of Pheidias, who was also responsible for the statue of Athena at Athens, and also had overall control over the work of the construction of the Parthenon. He made the statue in a special workshop at Olympia which had the same dimensions as the cella of the temple where the statue would finally reside. Many tools and other objects have been found in the vicinity of the workshop. A beaker was discovered and the inscription on it read "I belong to Pheidias".

Sadly, nothing of the statue remains today. But we know from the comments recorded by those who visited the Temple of Zeus at Olympia that there was unanimous admiration for it. It was known as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

An ancient writer called Arrian said, "The other Wonders of the World we only admire; this one we reverence as well".

The statue was so large that even though Zeus was seated, his head almost touched the roof of the naos (or cella)A room at the centre of the temple, usually containing a cult image or statue.. He held a symbol of victory of gold and ivory in this right hand, and a sceptre in his left. The throne was decorated with mythical scenes which were inlaid with gold, ivory and precious stones.

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