All  
What the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia may have looked like.

Chryselephantine: Sculpting the Most Luxurious Greek Cult Statues

Gold and ivory – what could be a richer mix? The ancient Greeks saw this as one of the most luxurious combinations as well, which is why they reserved the chryselephantine sculpting technique for their most treasured cult statues.

The name of this technique is formed by combining two Greek words, chrysòs and elephàntinos, which mean ‘gold’ and ‘ivory’ respectively, which indicates the two main materials used for this technique. As both gold and ivory were (and still are) costly materials, only certain valued objects would be made containing both. Two of the most famous statues made using this technique were the statue of Athena in the Parthenon of Athens and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Zeus in Olympia. Phidias’ statue in gold and ivory in Olympia's main temple.

Zeus in Olympia. Phidias’ statue in gold and ivory in Olympia's main temple. ( Public Domain )

Creating a Chryselephantine Sculpture

Generally speaking, this technique involved the use of a wooden frame, around which a sculpture would attach carved sheets of ivory, which were meant to represent the flesh of the sculpture. Sheets of gold leaf, which represented the statue’s drapery or armor, would then be added. These gold sheets could also be used to depict the figure’s hair and other physical details. In some cases, pieces of colored glass, precious stone, as well as semi-precious stone, were used to place emphasis on the statue’s eyes or weapons.

Archaic chryselephantine statue fragments. Archaeological Museum of Delphi.

Archaic chryselephantine statue fragments. Archaeological Museum of Delphi. (Ricardo André Frantz/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

It goes without saying that chryselephantine sculptures were a display of the wealth possessed by those who commissioned them, as the raw materials were expensive objects. Moreover, the high level of skill required to create such sculptures was also a testimony to the abilities of the craftsmen who were employed to make them.      

Archaic chryselephantine statue fragments. Archaeological Museum of Delphi.

Archaic chryselephantine statue fragments. Archaeological Museum of Delphi. (Ricardo André Frantz/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Palaikastro Kouros

The origin of the chryselephantine technique remains a mystery, but the earliest known examples are said to date to the 2nd millennium BC and are from the Aegean Islands. The best known specimen of these early chryselephantine sculptures is the Palaikastro Kouros, a statuette from Crete depicting a young man.

The majority of the statuette’s body, including its hands, feet, and torso, are made of hippopotamus tooth, and gold sheet was used to make its zoma (a Minoan loincloth or kilt), sandals, and what seems to be a bracelet. Rock crystal was used to make the statuette’s eyes, whilst its hairpiece is of serpentine.

Palaikastro Kouros.

Palaikastro Kouros. (Olaf Tausch/ CC BY 2.0 )

Although the chryselephantine technique was also used by the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian artists, it was on a smaller scale than the Greek usage. From around the 6th century BC, the Greeks began to produce their own chryselephantine sculptures. These were often cult statues that were meant to be the centerpieces of major temples.

The Chryselephantine Statue of Athena Parthenos

Compared to such statuettes as the Palaikastro Kouros, these were colossal in size, and were indeed masterpieces. One of the best known examples of such a sculpture is the chryselephantine statue of Athena Parthenos, which once stood in the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens. The statue was constructed by the famous sculptor Phidias between 447 and 432 BC.

Unfortunately, the statue is now lost, as it disappeared from the historical records during the 5th century AD. It is a common belief that the statue was taken to Constantinople and was later destroyed. Thanks to the fame of this statue, written descriptions, as well as replicas of the statue were made, thus allowing us to reconstruct its original appearance with a fair level of accuracy.

A recreation in modern materials of the lost colossal statue by Pheidias, Athena Parthenos by Alan LeQuire (1990) is housed in a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park. She is the largest indoor sculpture in the western world.

A recreation in modern materials of the lost colossal statue by Pheidias, Athena Parthenos by Alan LeQuire (1990) is housed in a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park. She is the largest indoor sculpture in the western world . (Dean Dixon/ Copyleft)

Another famed chryselephantine sculpture, also constructed by Phidias, was the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This statue was built around 430 BC, based on the discovery of Phidias’ workshop at Olympia during the 1950s.

The supposed workshop of Phidias at Olympia, where it is said he fashioned the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World.

The supposed workshop of Phidias at Olympia, where it is said he fashioned the chryselephantine statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient World. (Alun Salt/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Like the statue of Athena Parthenos, this chryselephantine statue is also lost. In 391 AD, the Christian emperor Theodosius ordered the statue to be dismantled, and stripped of its gold, as it was a pagan symbol. Whilst the statue has been described in written accounts, and depicted on coins, replicas of it are not known to have been made, leaving us with no way to confirm if our reconstructions of this ancient wonder are accurate or not.

Top Image: What the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia may have looked like . Source: Dr. James Terry

By Ḏḥwty

References

Ancient-Greece.org., 2018. Chryselephantine statue of Athena. [Online]
Available at: http://ancient-greece.org/art/athena-statue.html

Hill, B., 2015. Wonder of the Ancient World: The Grand and Powerful Statue of Zeus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/wonder-ancient-world-grand-and-powerful-statue-zeus-003150

Ministry of Culture and Sports, 2007. The Palaikastro Kouros. [Online]
Available at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/4/eh430.jsp?obj_id=4748

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. Chryselephantine. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/chryselephantine

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2015. Statue of Zeus. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Statue-of-Zeus

visual-arts-cork.com, 2018. Chryselephantine Sculpture. [Online]
Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/sculpture/chryselephantine.htm

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Next article