Ancient Greece People


Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Phidias was an Athenian sculptor, the son of Charmides, and is generally acknowledged as the greatest ancient Greek sculptor and instigator of the classical style of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Although few facts are known about his life, it is believed he lived from around 490 until 430 BC. No originals of his work exist, but his recognition as a renowned sculptor has been guaranteed due to the praise of ancient writers, as well as the influence his sculptures had on the development of the art. He gained most of his fame for his two enormous chryselephantine (gold and ivory) sculptures: One of Athena in the Parthenon, and the other of Zeus at Olympia. These statues had such a profound impact that they determined all subsequent conceptions of Athena and Zeus.

Various people have been rumoured to be responsible for his training: Hegias of Athens, Agelades of Argos and the painter Polygnotus of Thasos. We know of two of Phidias' own pupils, noted by Pausanias, who were also his 'eromenoi' (younger boys taken as lovers by older men). The first, Agoracritus, went on to produce the sculpture of Nemesis at Rhamnus. The second, Pantarkes of Elis, won the boy's wrestling at Olympia in 436 B.C and seems to have been greatly admired by Phidias. This is confirmed by Pausanias' report that the boy was used by Phidias as a model for one of the figures that decorated his great statue of Zeus at Olympia. The piece was in the form of a triumphant athlete that stood at the base of the statue. Clement of Alexandria also writes that Phidias carved the words 'Kalos Pantarkes'('Pantarkes is beautiful') onto Zeus' little finger.

Phidias is known to have been closely connected with Pericles, as his friend and also as his adviser. When Pericles rose to power in 449 B.C. he set out to beautify Athens once more after the victory over Persia. Phidias was placed in charge of artistic activities as the superintendent of public works. He was commissioned to build the major statues for the city, and was paid by Pericles with money from the Delian League. It is generally believed that Phidias directed and supervised the construction of the Parthenon, as well as designing the sculptural decoration, of which the surviving pieces can be found in the British museum (the Elgin Marbles). The marble blocks that were to be used for the pediment statues of the building date from 434 BC, which is probably after Phidias' death. Therefore it is a possibility that much of the work was carried out by assistants or pupils, such as Agoracritus. Interestingly though, the mathematical golden ratio is represented by the Greek letter 'phi', taken from Phidias' name. This is because Phidias employed the ratio in making the Parthenon sculptures, which perfectly exhibit the proportions of the golden ratio.

There are varying accounts of Phidias' death, but it is generally acknowledged that he became the target of Pericles' political enemies, due to his close connection with him. Targetting Phidias was an attempt to harm Pericles' status. They first accused him of stealing gold from the Athena Parthenos in 432 BC, however Phidias was able to prove his innocence. They then charged him with impiety, based on the fact that he had included portraits of Pericles and himself in the decorations of Athena's shield. It was formerly believed that Phidias died in prison shortly after this, however it is now more likely that he was exiled to Elis were he lived out the rest of his days.

Phidias' colossal statue of Athena was housed in the Parthenon, known as the Athena Parthenos and recognised as the symbol of Athens, dating from 447 - 439 BC. As the original is lost, we form a general idea of the statue from Roman copies, as well as its representation on coins and gems. The chryselephantine statue stood 38 feet high, depicting the goddess standing upright with a spear in her left hand and a winged Nike (goddess of victory) in her right hand. She wore a helmet and a tunic covered by her characteristic snaked aegis, with an ornate shield and a serpent (representing Erichthonius) by her side. Her chiton (tunic) is fixed at the waist by two entwined serpents. In the middle of her helmet a sphinx is depicted, with a griffin shown in relief on either side. Her hair falls down in front of her breastplate, which bears a picture of Medusa's head in ivory. The flesh of her arms and face were also carved of ivory; the drapery made of beaten sheets of gold. This meant that the statue actually made up a great deal of the Athenian treasury, and in 296 BC Lachares replaced the gold with bronze in order to pay his army. Several ancient copies survive, the most notable being the Varvakeion Athena from 130 AD and the uncompleted Lenormant Athena; both are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Phidias' second work on the same scale as the Athena Parthenos, was his gigantic statue of Zeus for the temple in Olympia. Dating from around 435 BC, the statue was counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It depicted Zeus seated on an huge throne, the back of which rose above his head, making the statue 42 feet high, occupying the full height of the temple. All that survives to give us an idea of what the sculpture looked like, are some small engraved coins from Elis, which show the composition of the figure and the rendering of the head. Zeus was bearded and wearing a cloak that was covered in sculpted decorations. In his right hand he held a Nike, and in his left was a sceptre with an eagle on top. Like the Athena Parthenos, the piece was chryselephantine, with ivory flesh and gold drapery. In 1958 a workshop was excavated at Olympia that is believed to have been where Phidias made his Zeus, on account of a drinking cup found there inscribed with the words 'I belong to Phidias'. Some tools and terracotta moulds were discovered which establish that gold was hammered into the moulds and then further decorated with glass and gems.

Other works that we know of by Phidias include two other statues of Athena for the Acropolis. The first, the Athena Promachos, was 30 feet high and therefore the tallest Athenian sculpture before Phidias went on to build the Athena Parthenos. The second was the Lemnian Athena, dedicated by colonists who were sent from Athens to Lemnos. There were also two further chryselephantine sculptures: an Athena for Pellene and an Aphrodite for Elis.


Copyright © 2003-2023 University Press Inc. All Rights Reserved