Phidias (Greek Φειδίας Pheidías; * c. 500/490 BC in Athens; † c. 430/420 BC) was an ancient sculptor and toreut. He is considered one of the greatest sculptors of antiquity and a prominent representative of the Greek High Classical period.

His works have been completely destroyed and today they are only available in copies. The most famous works are the 12-meter-high statue of Zeus in Olympia, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Athena Parthenos in Athens.

Life of Phidias

Phidias was born in Athens around 500/490 BC, the son of Charmides (not to be confused with the Athenian politician Charmides). Very little else is known about his life. Just by describing his work, a rough outline of his life can be made visible.

In all probability Phidias was in close personal contact with the radical democrats who came to power in Athens in 462/461 B.C. and whose best-known representatives were Ephialtes and Pericles.

There are two contradictory traditions concerning the last period of his life. According to one tradition, Phidias, after he had finished the statue of the Olympic Zeus, was accused by the opponents of Pericles of having stolen gold from the previously created statue of Athena Parthenos. However, he was able to evade this accusation.

Thereupon Pericles' opponents accused him of blasphemy, since he had depicted himself as well as Pericles on the shield of Athena Parthenos, and he was imprisoned. Allegedly, he died of poisoning shortly thereafter. According to another version, he was able to escape to Elis and created the statue of Olympian Zeus only after being accused and escaping in exile.

The date of his death, even the end of his creative period is generally considered unexplained nowadays and is assumed to be around 420 BC rather than 430 BC. There is no certain reason to see in the statue of Zeus his last work.

Works of Phidias

Athena in Pellene

Phidias received a first-class education from the sculptors Hegias and Ageladas of Argos, who is also said to have been the teacher of Myron and Polyklet. The training included not only sculpture in stone, but also lost-form bronze casting. Building on these techniques, Phidias later developed the art of combining different materials such as marble, bronze, glass flow, gold and ivory in his sculptures.

The earliest work with which Phidias demonstrated his skill was an Athena statue of gold and ivory for the temple at Pellene in the northern Peloponnese. It was probably created around 465 BC.

The Marathon dedication gift of the Athenians at Delphi

Phidias' first major work was a bronze group financed from the tithe traditionally reserved for the gods from the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). It included the ten bronze statues of the Attic Phyle heroes: Aias, Aigeus, Akamas, Antioches, Erechtheus, Hippothoon, Kekrops, Leos, Oineus, and Pandion. In addition, Athena as the patron goddess of Athens and Apollo as the patron god of Delphi may have been represented.

They stood on a 16-meter base in front of the Athenian treasury at Delphi. The 10 Phylenheroes were an expression of the victory of the young democracy over all internal and external enemies. At the same time, the monument consciously set itself apart from the political system of tyranny with reference to the Cleisthenian reforms.

Further heroes as well as a statue of Miltiades, about which Pausanias informs us, must be regarded as later, propagandistic embellishment and use of the monument as well as the addition of three Ptolemaic kings, who in Hellenism liked to be placed as Phylenheroes close to the victory of Marathon.

Even if the work itself is lost, its elaboration provides us with very important information regarding the Battle of Marathon. As a votive gift from the spoils of victory, the Heroes are said to have been cast. This celebrated the survival of democracy, which would have been over in the event of a Persian victory.

Immediately after the battle, therefore, Marathon had a local significance limited to Attica. When Herodotus refers to Athens as the "champion of the Greeks" in the advancing 5th century B.C., he is picking up on a deliberately scattered propaganda that was so efficient that it is still effective today.

The Phylon Monument of Phidias, however, provides us with the chronologically first and decisive proof that Marathon had by no means the significance for Greece that was later attributed to it.

Athena Areia in Plataia

The statue of Athena Areia, about 3.50 m high, stood in the temple that the Athenians had built on the battlefield at Plataiai in honor of the victory over the Persians. The robe and weapons were made of gold, the bare skin parts of the goddess were made of marble.

The statue may have survived in Roman copies of the Athena Medici type. At the base was the effigy of Arimnestos, who had commanded the Plataean contingent in the battles of Marathon and Plataiai.

Phidias' statue was the center of an ensemble to which the painters Polygnotos and Onasias had contributed with murals. Polygnotos' painting depicted the killing of the suitors by Odysseus, Onasias' the first campaign of the Seven against Thebes.

The pictorial program of this ensemble was directed primarily against Athens' internal enemies. Athena, the patron goddess of the city, usurped the insignia of Ares, the patron god of Thebes, which had sided with the enemy during the Persian Wars and was an ally of Sparta. Onasias' painting showed where fraternal strife leads, namely to the downfall of the rulers of Thebes; Polygnotos illustrated the punishment of those who transgress divine laws.

Athena Promachos in Athens

Phidias probably began work on the nine-meter-high bronze statue around 460 BC; the work was probably completed around 450 BC. It decorated the Acropolis in Athens. The 5 × 5 meter base for the statue can still be seen today. Remains of the inscription reporting that the statue was financed by loot money are preserved.

The Athena Promachos is very poorly preserved. Coin images show that she held her right arm outstretched, on which Nike, the goddess of victory, was standing. Against the left leg of the goddess leaned a shield, against her left shoulder the lance.

The shield depicted the battle of the Greeks against the Centaurs. It was made by Toreut Mys and the painter Parrhasios. After the Persian Wars, the fight against the Centaurs was understood as a metaphor for the fight against the Persians.

Athena Parthenos in Athens

In numerous scaled-down Roman copies the Athena Parthenos has survived, which stood in the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. The colossal statue was 11.5 meters tall. In the creation of Athena Parthenos, Phidias used ivory, and about 1000 kg of gold were used for the clothes, sandals and helmet.

On the outside of the 4.80 m round shield the battle of the Athenians and Amazons was depicted in relief, on the inside the battle of the gods and giants could be seen as a painting. Nothing has survived from the painting, but the relief can be reconstructed with great certainty:

In the center was seen a Gorgon head, around which snakes coiled.
Around it 28 fighters (15-16 Amazons) were grouped in two circles, mostly in a constellation of two, more rarely in a constellation of three. The Amazons were dressed with a chiton, most of the Athenians were depicted naked.

With great art Phidias depicted the attack of the fighters, the wounding and the dying in an elevated, idealizing realism, as it is appropriate for the heroic events.
In the depiction of an aged stone thrower, antiquity saw a self-portrait of Phidias.
On the face of Theseus, on the other hand, people thought they recognized the features of Pericles.

In Nashville (Tennessee) there is a true-to-scale replica of the Parthenon including the 11.5 m high colossal statue of Athena Parthenos.

Phidias and the Parthenon

The question to what extent Phidias was involved in the planning and execution of the sculptural decoration at the Parthenon has played a major role in earlier Phidias research. Plutarch reports that Phidias was in charge or supervised all the work on the Acropolis because of his friendship with Pericles.

Some researchers have deduced from this that Phidias designed the program of the images, which was then - research leaves no doubt about this - executed by several masters, so Phidias was in a sense the creator of the sculptural decoration.

Today the prevailing opinion is that Phidias rather had a mediating function between the different sculptors. Since the city of Athens commissioned the Parthenon, all questions related to it (including artistic ones) were submitted to the people's assembly, which decided on them in a democratic way.

One can imagine that such an outstanding artist and influential politician as Phidias submitted a program developed by him to the People's Assembly for decision and prevailed.

Phidias was therefore not the great, all-superior genius who obeyed only his own law and created art in insurmountable opposition to a mass of people who hardly or not at all understood it, but integrated into Athens' democratic structures; not his own art law was his highest principle, but the will to serve Athens and its democracy. In this respect one must regard the sculpture decoration at the Parthenon as the joint work of all Athenians.

Athena Lemnia in Athens

The helmetless, larger-than-life bronze statue of Athena Lemnia was probably created around 450 BC and erected on the Acropolis in Athens. The inscription named the cleruchs of the island of Lemnos as the donors. Cleruchs were Athenians who were sent to the allied territories and were given land there and looked after Athens' interests.

The goddess is not helmeted, so she is not ready for battle. She contemplates the helmet she holds in her right hand in a calm posture. The spear, however, leans against her left shoulder; it illustrates her ability to fight.

Probably because of its appearance, which is not very eager to fight, the statue was considered Phidias' most beautiful in antiquity. It is highly probable that copies have survived. A reconstruction, attributed to Adolf Furtwängler, can be seen in Dresden.

The statue of Zeus from Olympia

The 12-meter-high statue in the Temple of Zeus at Olympia rested on an inner framework of iron, plaster and wood, was clad on the outside with sheet gold, ivory and ebony and was erected using the so-called chryselephantine technique.

In this technique, especially in the case of images of gods, the face, hands and feet of the wooden or marble figures are covered with sheet gold and ivory and decorated with precious stones and cast colored glass.

During excavation works in Olympia near the temple of Zeus, the remains of Phidias' workshop were found and in it material remains, tools, etc., also a ceramic cup in the bottom of which the words: ΦΕΙΔΙΟΥ ΕΙΜΙ (Φειδίου εἰμί Pheidiou eimi "of Pheidias [property] I am").

Amazon in Ephesus

Ancient writers report an Amazon monument in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Phidias, Polyklet, Kresilas, Kydon and Phradmon each made a statue of Amazon. Judging by the style of the bronze statues, the monument may have been erected around 430 BC.

The statues of Polyklet, Phidias and Kresilas can be found in copies, the preserved statue types "Sosikles", "Mattei" and "Sciarra" go back to the competition. Controversial to this day is the attribution of the Amazon types to individual artists.

According to legend, the Amazons had invaded Attica coming from the east and had been defeated by the Greeks. The survivors had found refuge in Ephesus. There, the "man-killing" warriors had become women who married Greeks and henceforth led a domestic life. The Amazons were understood by the public of that time as a symbol of the defeated invaders. They stood for the fate of those who dared to oppose Athens.

Aphrodite Urania in Elis near Olympia

Pausanias tells of an Aphrodite Urania of gold and ivory that was placed in the temple of Aphrodite at Elis. The left foot of the statue rested on a small turtle. A Roman marble torso in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (inventory number Sk 1459) may have survived the statue. Stylistically, the work can be assigned to the 430s.

Apollo Parnopios

Pausanias reports about a statue of Apollo in Athens, which is attributed to Phidias (compare 1, 24, 8). The statue held a bow in one hand and a grasshopper in the other.

Justified by this, the so-called Kassel Apollo, the best preserved copy in a whole series of marble copies of a bronze sculpture, is identified as Apollo Parnopios and attributed to Phidias. A bow and arrow is proven in remnants in a hand of the Kassel sculpture.

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