Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends

The masterful works of ancient sculptor Phidias

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Phidias was a master sculptor in ancient Greece. Very little is known of his life, but his accomplishments are famous throughout the world. Phidias worked masterfully with bronze and other materials, and he created colossal statues in commemoration of Greek gods and events. While none of his original works have been confirmed to be in existence today, we are able to view replicas of his creations, which have been attributed to Phidias through ancient writings.

It is believed that Phidias lived from 480 through 430 BC. He was a Greek sculptor, painter and architect, and he is often referred to as one of the greatest sculptors of Classical Greece, which lasted through the 4 th and 5 th centuries BC. He was the son of Charmides of Athens, and it is believed that his masters were Hegias and Hageladas.

Ancient critics highly praised the ethos or “permanent moral level” of his works, and Demetrius called his statues “sublime” and “precise.” Unfortunately, none of Phidias’ works have been conclusively identified in modern times. Like most classical Greek sculptures and paintings, it is likely that all of Phidias’ works were destroyed. However, Roman copies of his work were created, and can be viewed to this day in honor of the works that he created so masterfully.

Marble statue of “Heracles”, attributed to Phidias

Marble statue of “Heracles”, attributed to Phidias. ( Wikipedia)

Phidias’ earliest works were in celebration of the Greek victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon during the Greco-Persian Wars in 490 BC. His first commission was a group of national heroes with Miltiades, a renowned Olympic chariot-racer who played a very important role in the battle of Marathon, serving as the central figure. This large bronze work at Delphi also included the figures of Greek gods Apollo and Athena and several Attic heroes.

Two of Phidias’ later works became the most prominently known among the ancient Greeks. Around 432 BC, Phidias created a massive chryselephantine figure of Zeus in the temple of Zeus at Olympia, Greece, and one of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon in Athens. Statues made of chryselephantine, a sculpting medium of ivory and gold, were of a high status in ancient Greece. Many replicas of Phidias’ Zeus and Athena statues have been created, from ancient times through to the present. It is said that he established the conceptual images of Zeus and Athena.

2nd century CE sculpture, small replica of the Athena Parthenos of Phidias

Left: 2nd century CE sculpture, small replica of the Athena Parthenos of Phidias ( Wikipedia). Right: Artist’s impression of Zeus sculpture by Phidias ( Wikimedia)

Phidias’ was celebrated widely for both his bronze and chryselephantine statues. To identify and understand the works of Phidias, we must take clues from ancient writings. According to Plato, Phidias rarely, if ever, used marble for his sculptures, although it was a very popular sculpting medium at the time. It is the writings of Plato that ascribe most of Phidias’ works to him. Plutarch writes of Phidias having superintended the works of Pericles on the Acropolis. In celebration of the victory at Marathon, Pericles commissioned Phidias to create the sculptures. Some inscriptions show that marble blocks to be used for pedimental statues of the Parthenon were not brought to Athens until after Phidias’ death. It is believed that most of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon came from Phidias’ atelier, or workshop, although he had passed away by that point. His pupils, Alcamenes and Agoracritus, are likely to have created the works at the Parthenon. Geographer Pausanias credits Phidias with creating the original bronze Lemnian Athena, for Athenians living on Lemnos.

The Goddess statue by Phidias was said to be colossal

The Goddess statue by Phidias was said to be colossal ( Source)

Several years ago, Phidias’ workshop at Olympia (where he created the Statue of Zeus) was discovered. It was excavated from 1954 – 1958, revealing tools, terracotta molds and a cup bearing the inscription "I belong to Phidias." Through these discoveries archaeologists have been able to confirm the date of the statue and recreate the techniques used to build it.

The supposed workshop site of Phidias at Olympia

The supposed workshop site of Phidias at Olympia , A.Salt ( Creative Commons )

It is unfortunate that we are unable to view Phidias’ original works to this day. We can still marvel at the masterpieces he created by viewing replicas and recreations, and as time goes on these masterpieces will continue to remain as a legacy of his immense contribution to the cultural and artistic heritage of Greece.

Featured image: 1868 Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends ( Wikipedia)

Comments

DeAegean's picture

I have a lot of respect for these classy people. They lived such different lives compared to now but I feel like this guy would be compared to some of the architects of famous modern buildings around the world.

rbflooringinstall's picture

Well that's a shame that you can't see his original work. The replicas are beautiful themselves, but knowing they aren't his originals takes away some of the magic.

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

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