The Temple of Zeus at Olympia was an ancient Greek temple in Olympia, Greece, dedicated to the chief of the gods. The temple, built between 472 and 456 BC, was the very model of the fully developed classical Greek temple of the Doric order.
The temple stood in the most famous sanctuary of Greece, which had been dedicated to local and Pan-Hellenic deities and had probably been established towards the end of the Mycenaean period. The Altis, the enclosure with its sacred grove, open-air altars and the tumulus of Pelops, was first formed during the tenth and ninth centuries BC Greece's "Dark Age", when the cult of Zeus was joined to the already established cult of Hera.
It housed the renowned statue of Zeus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Chryselephantine statue was approximately 13 m (43 ft) high and was made by the sculptor Phidias in his workshop on the site at Olympia. He took about twelve years to complete it. On his head was a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. In his right hand he held a figure of Nike, the goddess of victory, also made from ivory and gold, and in his left hand, a scepter made with many kinds of metal, with an eagle perched on the top. His sandals were made of gold and so was his robe. His garments were carved with animals and with lilies. The throne was decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory. The statue was the most famous artistic work in Greece.
The temple was constructed by the architect Libon, with carved metopes and triglyph friezes, topped by pediments filled with sculptures in the Severe Style, now attributed to the "Olympia Master" and his studio.
The main structure of the building was of a local limestone that was unattractive and of poor quality, and so it was coated with a thin layer of stucco to give it an appearance of marble. All the sculptural decoration on the temple was made of Parian marble, and the roof tiles were of the same Pentelic marble used to build the Parthenon at Athens.
The east pediment, erroneously attributed to Paeonius by Pausanias, who gave a detailed account of its sculptures in the late second century CE, depicted the myth of the chariot race between Pelops and Oenomaus, with Zeus standing in the centre, flanked by standing pairs of heroes and heroines, and the two chariot groups, with recumbent figures in the corners. Hippodameia and her maid stand to Zeus' left (north), and Pelops to Zeus' right. A great part of all fifteen figures has been recovered, in carefully documented excavations; scholars still discuss the placement and interrelationships of six seated or kneeling figures in the composition, and their specific identifications.
The west pediment depicted the Centauromachy, the fight at the wedding of Peirithoos between the Lapiths and the centaurs, who had violated xenia, the sacred rules of hospitality that support the social norms. Apollo stood in the centre, flanked by Peirithoos and Theseus. Peirithoos, king of the Lapiths has invited the centaurs to a wedding celebration. The centaurs get drunk and kidnap the women. Perithoos succeeds in defeating them. The Lapiths have been taken to represent the civilised Olympian order of the Greeks themselves, while the Centaurs represent primitive nature of chthonic beings; the frieze also reminded fifth-century Greeks of their victory over the Persians, "outsider" threateners of the Hellenic order. The statue of Apollo (currently in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia) was depicted on the obverse of the Greek 1000 drachmas banknote of 1987-2001.
The pronaos and opisthodomos, the entrance portico and the balancing false portico at the rear, were constructed in antis, with six metopes at either end, carved with the 12 labours of Heracles, in which Heracles successfully defeats a series of creatures and monsters that threaten righteous order.
The Roman general Mummius dedicated twenty-one gilded shields after he sacked Corinth in 146 BC; they were hung upon the columns. In 426 CE, Theodosius II ordered the destruction of the sanctuary, and earthquakes in 522 and 551 devastated the ruins and left the Temple of Zeus partially buried.
The site of the ancient sanctuary, long forgotten under landslips and flood siltation, was identified in 1766. In 1829 a French team partially excavated the Temple of Zeus, taking several fragments of the pediments to the Musée du Louvre. Systematic excavation began in 1875, under the direction the German Archaeological Institute, and has continued, with some interruptions, to the present time.
The 1997 Disney animated film Hercules depicts the Temple of Zeus as the only communication Hercules has with his father while he is a mortal. Zeus communicates by possessing the statue within the temple. In an episode of the animated series, Zeus further uses this ability to address an issue on Earth by using the statue to visit other cities near Athens.
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