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Recovering Lost Wonders of the World: Pheidias's Athena Parthenos and Zeus Olympios

Summary of lecture, written by student Jesper V. Jensen.

Written by student Jesper V. Jensen

In this last lecture of the Palmyra Portrait Project lecture series in 2017, Associate Curator Kenneth Lapatin of the J. Paul Getty Museum gave an enlightening talk of the gold and ivory statues of Athena Parthenos and Zeus Olympios. Although the statues did not have much to do with Palmyra, the statues and their creator Phidias left a great impact on the ancient as well as the modern world. Unfortunately, nothing has been preserved of these enormous statues, which has led to various discussions concerning their exact visual appearance, the materials and the technics used to construct these sculptures.

Even though no physical remains have survived, representations of both statues can be found in various ancient media such as coins and sculptures. We likewise have detailed descriptions of the appearance of the statues from Pliny the Elder and Pausanias. All these elements combined allows us to make fairly accurate reconstructions of both statues. This has led to several attempts to make physical modern reconstructions such as the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, which gives us a clue to how the original statue was experienced by the visitor. These reconstructions, however, does not tell us were the materials of the original sculptures came from or how they were constructed.

Marble ledgers from the erection of the Parthenon shows the cost of the Athena Parthenos statue correlated to a year’s worth of maintenance of the entire Athenian fleet. The statues were, however, not build in as one massive monolithic statue but was instead an assembly of smaller parts assembled around a large wooden framework. In order to make the ivory elements of the statues Phidias likely used a technic which, though boiling the tusks in possibly vinegar, allowed him to “unscroll” the tusks into thin flexible sheets. These sheets of ivory could then be molded into variety of different shapes. Excavations of the workshop of Phidias at Olympia likewise revealed small molds used for the manufacturing of glass elements. Combined these glass pieces formed larger objects, such as a chiton, possibly used in the Nike statue perched in the hand of Zeus. The combination of these materials, as well as their enormous size, insured that any visitor to the temple of Zeus at Olympia and the Parthenon at Athens would not doubt in the divine nature of Pheidias’s creations.