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Who's Who Ancient Greece: The Arts

Phidias (490-432 BC)

Sculpture & Archetecture

This sculptor is generally regarded as the finest of ancient Greece and designed one of the wonders of the ancient world; the statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Much is known about his work, but little about his life, though it is known that he was son of Athenian named Charmidhis, and relative of the painter, Panaenus.

Phidias also had great talent for painting, but turned to sculpture instead, studying with various teachers, and using wood, marble, ivory, bronze, and gold in his work. He exemplified classical art in the same manner that Periklis, who set him to the task of building the Parthenon, exemplified Athenian democracy.

A gold and ivory statue of the goddess Athena was among his early works, though it did not survive, nor does any copy exist.


Other early works include the bust of the poet Anakreon , another of Phidias' early works, a copy of which is housed in the Copenhagen Museum, the statue of the Athena Promachos, erected on the Acropolis near the Propylaea, which incorporates war prizes from the Battle of Marathon, the Athena Lemnia, made of bronze and which stood on the Acropolis, the bronze busts of Attican heroes dedicated at Delphi, and the gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was a colossal work, 12 meters high , including the base, depicting Zeus seated on a throne adorned with paintings, ivory, and precious metals.

The period after 448 BC, however, marks the period of Phidias' most outstanding works, when the sculptor was invited by Periklis to collaborate in the manifestation of his vision for the artistic decoration of the Acropolis, and especially the Parthenon, temple of Athena.

ACROPOLIS by phidias and coPhidias supervised the reconstruction of temples destroyed by the Persians during their invasion of Greece, in addition to the monuments which he constructed on the Acropolis, as well as in Athens and in Attica.

The Parthenon was his masterpiece, and though the sculpture which adorned it was also created in part by his students and assistants, his personal inspiration and genius were at the heart of these works, which include the metopes that depict scenes from the Trojan War, the battle of the Athenians with the Amazons, the struggle between Lapiths and Centaurs, and scenes from the battle of the Olympic gods with the Giants.

The Parthenon frieze was another stunning work, that stood a meter high (3.28 feet), and was 160 meters 525 feet) long, and which depicts the Panathenaic procession, with 360 human figures and many animals. Among the figures are musicians, nobles, priests, gods, ordinary citizens of Athens, old men, women, youths, rams, oxen and horses. Also the work of Phidias, the two pediments with their sculptures, the final stage of work on the Parthenon, took five years to complete, with more than 50 figures and with themes drawn from myths associated with the goddess Athena.

The ultimate work among all of the sculptures was the statue of the goddess Athena, made of gold and ivory (chryselephantine, the Greek word for this combination). It stood at 12 meters (39.36 feet) in the inner sanctum of the temple. The skeleton was of wood, the gown, armament and hair of gold, and the other exposed parts of ivory.

Before the work on the Parthenon had been completed, Phidias was forced to flee Athens, schemed against by the enemies of Periklis who were trying to overthrow him.

Their first attempt to victimize him was the accusation that he had kept some of the gold for himself that had been entrusted to him for his work on the Parthenon, though very wisely, as if foreseeing such a charge, had made the golden parts of the statue of Athena removable. He weighed them before his accusers and thus escaped that time, but more was to come.

Soon he was accused of sacrilege, a charge based on his including a portrait of both himself and of Periklis among the engravings on Athena's shield (this at least was what was said at the time), and he was condemned and put in prison. He escaped, however, aided by friends, and went to Olympia, site of his colossal statue of Zeus, that radiated harmony and was among the Seven Wonders of the World.