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A 1908 illustration of the temple as it might have looked in the 5th century BCE.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia, built in 470-456 BC, was the ancient Greek temple in Olympia, Greece, dedicated to the chief of the gods, Zeus. It was the very model of the fully-developed classical Greek temple of the Doric order.[1] The temple stood in the most famous sanctuary of Greece, which had been dedicated to local and Pan-Hellenic deities and had probably been established towards the end of the Mycenaean period. The Altis, the enclosure with its sacred grove, open-air altars and the tumulus of Pelops, was first formed during the ninth and tenth centuries BCE,[2] when the followers of Zeus joined the pre-established following of Hera.[3]

It housed the statue of Zeus which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Chryselephantine statue was approximately 13 m (43 ft) high and was made by the sculptor Phidias in his workshop on the site at Olympia. He took about twelve years to complete it. On his head was a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. In his right hand he held a figure of Nike, the goddess of victory, also made from ivory and gold, and in his left hand, a scepter made with many kinds of metal, with an eagle perched on the top. His sandals were made of gold and so was his robe. His garments were carved with animals and with lilies. The throne was decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory. The statue was the most famous artistic work in Greece.

The temple was constructed by the architect Libon, with carved metopes and triglyph friezes, topped by pediments filled with sculptures in the Severe Style, now attributed to the Olympia Master and his studio.

The main structure of the building was of a local limestone that was unattractive and of poor quality, and so it was coated with a thin layer of stucco to give it an appearance of marble. All the sculptural decoration on the temple was made of Parian marble, and the roof tiles were of the same Pentelic marble used to build the Parthenon at Athens.

Heracles vanquishes the old order: metope with Heracles and the Cretan Bull (Musée du Louvre).

The unifying theme of iconography of the temple is the dike or justice based on custom, as represented by Zeus, its upholder.[4]

The east pediment,[5] erroneously attributed to Paeonius by Pausanias, who gave a detailed account of its sculptures in the late second century CE, depicted the myth of the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus,[6] with Zeus standing in the centre, flanked by standing pairs of heroes and heroines, and the two chariot groups, with recumbent figures in the corners. Hippodameia and her maid stand to Zeus' left (north), and Pelops to Zeus' right. A great part of all fifteen figures has been recovered, in carefully documented excavations; scholars still discuss the placement and interrelationships of six seated or kneeling figures in the composition, and their specific identifications.

The west pediment depicted the Centauromachy, the fight at the wedding of Peirithoos between the Lapiths and the centaurs, who had violated xenia, the sacred rules of hospitality that support the social norms. Apollo[7] stood in the centre, flanked by Peirithoos and Theseus.[8] The Lapiths have been taken to represent the civilised Olympian order of the Greeks themselves, while the Centaurs represent primitive nature of chthonic beings; the frieze also reminded fifth-century Greeks of their victory over the Persians, "outsider" threateners of the Hellenic order. The statue of Apollo (currently in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia) was depicted on the obverse of the Greek 1000 drachmas banknote of 1987-2001.[9]

Ruins of the temple.

The pronaos and opisthodomos, the entrance portico and the balancing false portico at the rear, were constructed in antis, with six metopes at either end, carved with the 12 labours of Heracles, in which Heracles successfully defeats a series of creatures and monsters that threaten righteous order.[10]

The Roman general Mummius dedicated twenty-one gilded shields after he sacked Corinth in 146 BCE; they were hung upon the columns. In 426 CE, Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the sanctuary, and earthquakes in 522 and 551 devastated the ruins and left the Temple of Zeus partially buried. [11]

The site of the ancient sanctuary, long forgotten under landslips and flood siltation, was identified in 1766. In 1829 a French team partially excavated the Temple of Zeus, taking several fragments of the pediments to the Musée du Louvre. Systematic excavation began in 1875, under the direction the German Archaeological Institute, and has continued, with some interruptions, to the present time.

See also


  1. ^ Temple of Zeus at Archaeopaedia, Stanford University
  2. ^ (Hellenic Ministry of Culture: The sanctuary site at Olympia, including the Temple of Zeus
  3. ^ Preceding the Temple of Zeus in the temenos at Olympia were the archaic structures: "the temple of Hera, the Prytaneion, the Bouleuterion, the treasuries and the first stadium."
  4. ^ Jeffrey M. Hurwit, "Narrative Resonance in the East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia' The Art Bulletin 69.1 (March 1987:6-15).
  5. ^ Marie-Louise Säflund, The East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia: A Reconstruction and Interpretation of Its Composition, Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology, 27 (Götheborg) 1970, summarised fifty-eight previous reconstructions; her reconstruction has been widely but not universally accepted.
  6. ^ Oenomaus' violation of dike was symbolised by the thirteen heads of unsuccessful suitors, hung on columns in his palace. After the successful race, Zeus with a thunderbolt destroyed the palace. One wooden column left standing was shown to Pausanias with this commentary.
  7. ^ A.F. Stewart and N.D Tersini, "The gesture of Apollo in the west pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia", American Journal of Archaeology 86 (1982:287f).
  8. ^ Pediments of the temple of Zeus, 470 - 456 BCE at
  9. ^ Bank of Greece. Drachma Banknotes & Coins: 1000 drachmas. – Retrieved on 27 March 2009.
  10. ^ Hurwit 1987:6.
  11. ^ Hellenic Ministry of Culture.

External links

Coordinates: 37°38′16″N 21°37′48″E / 37.63778°N 21.63°E / 37.63778; 21.63



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