GREATEST GREEK SCULPTURE
Phidias (488-431 BCE)
Phidias is generally regarded as one of the greatest sculptors of Classical Antiquity, and the greatest carver of High Classical Greek sculpture. Also a painter and architect, Phidias was celebrated for his bronzes and especially his chryselephantine statues (in gold and ivory). Among his many famous works of Greek sculpture he is probably best known for his 40 foot statue of the goddess Athena at the Parthenon, Athens and his colossal Zeus at Olympia which became one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Very little is known of Phidias' life, apart from his works. Born around 488 BCE in Athens, his father's name was Charmides. There are various accounts of his training. According to Pliny, Phidias learned the art of sculpture from Ageladas of Argos - the same teacher who taught both Myron (480-444 BCE) and Polykleitos (5th century BCE). Other sources say that he was also taught by Hegias of Athens, and the Thasian painter Polygnotus.
ART OF ANTIQUITY
At some point in Phidias' career he befriended the famous and influential statesman Pericles, the famous champion of Greek architecture and sculpture, which was one of the chief reasons Athens held the reputation as the cultural centre of the ancient world. Under Pericles, Phidias received several sculpture commissions in 447 BCE to celebrate the Greek victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. The object was to decorate and beautify Athens. In his Life of Pericles, Plutarch gives an account of the vast artistic activity that was undergone. In all these works, according to Plutarch, Phidias was the adviser and overseer of Pericles. And it was eventually, as a result of this close relationship, that Phidias is believed to have met his downfall.
Contemporary critics acclaimed Phidias's sculpture for it's aesthetic values. It is believed that he employed the Golden Ratio in his proportions - that is an irrational number approximately 1.6180 which, when studied, has special mathematical properties. Phidias seldom executed carvings in marble, although this was popular at the time, preferring bronze sculpture, gold, ivory and wood-carving. He particularly excelled in bronze casting.
Although no original works of Phidias remain today, numerous copies Roman copies are known to exist. This is fairly common as almost all classical Greek sculptures and paintings have been destroyed - the Romans made very close copies - never developing their own style but instead furthering the Greek style.
Statue of Zeus
Phidias's colossal figure of Zeus (c.432 BCE) was erected in the temple of Zeus at Olympia (the site of the ancient Olympic games). The temple itself was built in the Mycenaean period and celebrated the cult of the God Zeus. The statue took 12 years to sculpt, and although it is no longer in existence, a small copy was found on coins of Elis which gives us a general idea of it's pose. On Zeus' head was a wreath of olive leaves, in his right hand he held a figure of Nike, the goddess of victory and in his left hand, a sceptre made with various metals, with an eagle perched on top. His robe and sandals were made with solid gold and his garments were engraved with animals and lilies. The throne was decorated with gold, ivory, ebony and other precious stones. It became one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the largest statue in the ancient history of sculpture.
Statue of Athena Promachos
Phidias other most famous work was the Athena Promachos (or Parthenos), which was originally housed in the Parthenon in Athens. Phidias began work on the statue in 447 BCE and it survived until the 5th century CE when it is presumed destroyed in fire. Ancients describe the statue as being made of ivory, silver and gold. The Goddess Athena is standing, a tunic reaches to her feet and the head of Medusa is worked in ivory on her breast. She holds a statue of victory in one hand and a spear in the other. At her feet lies a shield and a serpent. Numerous replicas have been made, in both the ancient and modern world. (Phidias also created a second bronze statue of Athena for the Acropolis, known as the Lemnian Athena.)
Although most of Phidias's major commissions were carried out in Athens and Olympia, he also executed statuary at Delphi, Plataea, Thebes, and Pallene in Achaea. His last years remain something of a mystery. It is said that enemies of the stateman Pericles tried to discredit him by accusing his protege Phidias of stealing gold from one of the statues at the Parthenos in 432 BCE. Although Phidias was able to clear himself of this charge, he was thrown into jail shortly after accused of 'impiety' on the ground that he had introduced images of himself and Pericles on the Strangford Shield. According to Plutarch, Phidias he died in jail, although other sources say he escaped to Olympia to work on his statue of Zeus.
Phidias was a grandmaster of design and technique, his rendering of the human body is restrained and harmonised. Given free rein by powerful patrons, Phidias was able to create some of the most beautiful works of the high classical period. He was one of the most important creators of the idealistic, classical style that distinguishes Greek art in the late 5th century BCE. With the exception of Michelangelo in the 16th century, no other sculptor has had so much influence on subsequent generations.
Interestingly, when Phidias' workshop at Olympia was unearthed and excavated in the mid-1950s, archeologists discovered a clay cup with the inscription "I belong to Phidias." This relic is now in the Olympia Museum.