The Greek sculptor Phidias (active ca. 475-425 B.C.), the dominant artistic figure of the 5th century, was best known for two chryselephantine cult statues, the "Athena Parthenos" in the Parthenon, Athens, and the "Zeus" in the Temple of Zeus, Olympia. He also supervised the construction and sculptural adornment of the Parthenon.
Literary sources for the life and career of Phidias, while often anecdotal in nature, are unusually abundant; among the most important are Plutarch, in Life of Perikles, and Pausanias, the latter with eyewitness descriptions of the colossal chryselephantine (gold and ivory) cult statues. Pliny the Elder, in Natural History, alludes to the 83d Olympiad (448-444 B.C.) as the time of Phidias's greatest activity. While his major commissions were done at Athens and Olympia, he also executed statuary at Delphi, Plataea, Thebes, and Pallene in Achaea. Phidias was unusually versatile, being renowned as a sculptor not only in bronze but also in marble and in the difficult technique of fashioning and assembling gold, ivory, and wooden components into chryselephantine statues. He is said to have originally been a painter. It is around his involvement with the Parthenon project, however, that any reconstruction of his career must be built.
Phidias's early works, that is, those done before about 450 B.C., all mentioned by Pausanias, include a gold-and-ivory image of Athena at Pallene, Achaea; the Apollo Parnopios on the Acropolis, Athens, commemorating Athens's salvation from a horde of locusts (thought by some scholars to be the Kassel Apollo type); and the bronze dedicatory group erected by Athens at the beginning of the Sacred Way at Delphi from one-tenth of the spoils of the Battle of Marathon. The motley lineup of figures in the Marathon group included gods (Apollo, Athena), the eponymous heroes of the Athenian tribes (Erechtheus, Kekrops, and so on), mythical Athenian kings (Theseus, Kodros), and the contemporary military hero Miltiades. The arrangement, to which Hellenistic rulers (Antigonos, Demetrios, Ptolemy) were added later, was probably side by side on a long rectangular base, similar to the monument of the eponymous heroes on the west side of the Athenian Agora.
Three Athena Statues
Three other important single statues loom large in any discussion of Phidias's style and career. The first of these, the Athena Areia dedicated in the sanctuary of Athena at Plataea, is said to have been over life-size and of a composite technique in which the drapery was gold-covered while the flesh parts (head, arms) were carved in marble. This technique, an elaboration of that known as "akrolithic, " in which the extremities are carved in stone and attached to a wooden core, is closely akin to the chryselephantine technique. The Athena Areia, paid for again from spoils of the Persian Wars, may have been a pan-Hellenic dedication, perhaps erected after the Peace of Kallias (449 B.C.). Pausanias connected it with the spoils of the Battle of Marathon, while Plutarch (Life of Aristides) preferred the Battle of Plataea (479 B.C.).
The Athena Promachos, a colossal standing bronze statue of Athena armed, was erected about 450 B.C. on the Acropolis, almost certainly north of the site of the Parthenon. While there are dim reflections of it on Athenian coins of the 2d century A.D. as an imposing element in the appearance of the Acropolis, no undisputed copies have yet come to light. The height of the Athena Promachos has been estimated as up to 25 feet, making Pausanias's comment that sailors could see sunlight reflected from her helmet and spear tip as they rounded Cape Sounion not impossible. The coins show Athena holding a Nike in her right hand; she may have balanced a shield or spear with her left. The overall composition may not have differed greatly from that of the Athena Parthenos.
Phidias perfected a different, peaceful interpretation of the patron goddess of Athens in the Athena Lemnia, dedicated on the Acropolis, also about 450 B.C., by cleruchs—Athenian citizens who garrisoned a military colony on the island of Lemnos (Pausanias). The beauty and delicate proportions of this statue are praised by ancient authors, especially Lucian (Imagines). On the basis of A. Furtwängler's reconstruction (1893), combining a body in Dresden and a head in Bologna, generally favored by scholars, the goddess appears unarmed, looking downward at her helmet, which she holds in her right hand. In this original, unconventional work, we see Phidias's ennobling, yet humanizing vision of the Olympian gods taking shape.
Attributed Works and Parthenon Activity
Among numerous other statues ascribed by classical authors to Phidias, much scholarly argument has ensued over identification of the Amazon submitted by Phidias to the famous competition at the Artemision of Ephesus, which received second place to Polykleitos's entry (Pliny, Natural History). Many scholars have favored identification of this work with the Mattei Amazon (Vatican Museums, Rome). Other even more controversial sculptures include an Aphrodite Ourania in Elis, Greece (Pausanias), in which the goddess rested her left foot on a tortoise, and an Aphrodite seen by Pliny (Natural History) in the Portico of Octavia in Rome, thought by some scholars to have been a seated statue; these attributions, however, remain hypothetical.
Although Plutarch states that Phidias was in charge of the entire Parthenon project, exactly how he was able to organize and supervise the complex staff of designers, sculptors, and masons required for the construction and execution of the building and its sculptures is still not understood. While scholars have been unable to point definitively to any single figure or feature in the sculptural ensemble as being by Phidias, B. Schweitzer (1940) has proposed that the underlying scheme was Phidias's and that he may well have participated in the carving of individual metopes, figures in the frieze, and three-dimensional statues in the pedimental groups.
The Athena Parthenos
Phidias's most justly famed creations were his two colossal gold-and-ivory cult statues. The Athena Parthenos, probably over 35 feet in height, is known through brief literary descriptions in Pliny (Natural History) and Pausanias and from copies and representations in various media. The picture that emerges is a standing, fully armed, and elaborately dressed Athena, holding a small statue of Nike in her outstretched right hand and cradling her spear with her left. Her shield rested against her right leg; nearby was a coiled serpent. Her helmet, sandals, and shield were richly decorated; the base of the statue depicted the birth of Pandora watched by 20 gods. The technique of construction, while not known for certain, probably included face, arms, and other skin areas pieced together in ivory, while the drapery, of very thin gold, was applied in detachable sections over a shaped wooden interior. The core probably contained an armature of beams. The projecting right arm may have been supported by a column, as is the case in the Varvakeion statuette. Both the Athena Parthenos and the Zeus had a reservoir under the base for liquid, which helped to keep the statue from drying out and cracking.
The two best copies of the Athena Parthenos, the Varvakeion and Lenormant statuettes, both marble miniatures of Roman date (National Museum, Athens), are invaluable for providing a general idea of the statue's proportions and appearance. Two other small replicas, from Patras, Greece, and Bitolj, Yugoslavia, have been identified. Among other sculptural copies and adaptations, the over life-size version from the Library of the Sanctuary of Athena in Pergamon (Staatliche Museen, Berlin) is very important. A detailed reproduction of the head exists on a gem signed by the Roman gem cutter Aspasios (Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome). In addition, the battle of Greeks and Amazons represented on the shield is known, at least in its main outlines, through a number of copies, the most important of which include the unfinished shield on the Lenormant statuette, the "Strangford Shield" (British Museum, London), and individual pairs of fighters on large neo-Attic reliefs (Museum, Piraeus). The combatants, arranged in pairs, swirl around a large central Gorgon head. The compositions of the battle of gods and giants, on the concave side of the shield, and the birth of Pandora on the base have still not been identified with certainty.
The other gold-and-ivory colossus, the seated cult statue in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, received extravagant praise from writers in antiquity (Pausanias; Dio Chrysostomos, Orationes; Strabo, Geography; Pliny, Natural History; and Quintilian, Institutio oratoria). Phidias depicted Zeus seated upon an elaborately decorated throne adorned with gold, ivory, ebony, and semiprecious stones. He constructed the statue in a workshop just west of the Temple of Zeus which had measurements identical to those of the cella. Strabo's remark that if the god had arisen he would have unroofed the temple suggests, however, that Phidias did not adequately plan the statue for its restricted spatial setting.
Excavations of the workshop have uncovered much debris, including terra-cotta forms used to fashion sections of the exterior gold plating of the drapery, scraps of worked ivory, tools, and fragments of molded glass and worked obsidian from the inlaid ornamentation of the statue. When the information is published, it will be invaluable for interpreting and dating the statue, as well as for our knowledge of the chryselephantine technique.
According to Pausanias, Zeus, like the Athena Parthenos, held a Nike in his right hand; his left hand held a scepter. Every part of the god's costume and throne was covered with ornamentation; the slaughter of the Niobids, on the sides of the seat, and the birth of Aphrodite, on the base, are only two of the elaborate compositions mentioned. Surprisingly few copies of the Zeus have been identified; the entire composition is preserved on Hadrianic bronze coins from Elis, several gems of Roman date, and a small silver statuette (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The head also appears on Roman bronze coins from Elis.
The date of the Zeus has been much debated; some scholars believe that it was finished about 448 B.C., before Phidias went to Athens to assume command of the work on the Parthenon, while others, on the basis of indications about Phidias's trial for impiety at Athens, advocate a date after 432 B.C. The later date is now supported by the style of the pottery found with the workshop debris at Olympia, which belongs to the last quarter of the 5th century. Among this pottery is a small black-glaze mug with "I belong to Phidias" scratched in Greek on the bottom.
Phidias was a master of many media and techniques and unsurpassed at innovation. His conceptual genius translated the new interpretations of the gods that were emerging in contemporary Athenian literature into tangible, visible images. Given free rein by powerful patrons for the most grandiose commissions in the history of Greek art, Phidias responded with the creation of the high classical style in sculpture. With the exception of Michelangelo in the 16th century, perhaps no other Western sculptor has been more influential upon subsequent generations. In the light of what we now know of Phidias's style, the judgment of ancient critics, who considered him to have been the greatest Greek sculptor, seems eminently justified.
Further Reading on Phidias
For a discussion of the ancient sources on Phidias see Jerome J. Pollitt, The Art of Greece, 1400-31 B.C. (1965). The article "Phidias" by Giovanni Becatti in the Encyclopedia of World Art, vol. 11 (1966), has a bibliography of the earlier scholarly literature. Phidias is also discussed in G. M. A. Richter, The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks (4th ed. 1970).