The Olympic Games have kicked off in London, and to get in the spirit, we’re heading back to Greece. The ancient Olympics date to 776 BCE and were one of four Panhellenic festivals open to athletes from all parts of the Greek world. They honored Zeus, and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was aptly ornamented for such a serious purpose. The Doric temple housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, a colossal gold and ivory statue of the god. It does not survive, but the incredible marble sculptures that adorned the temple’s pediments do. Pediments are the low triangular gables that surmount the end walls of a temple. The pedimental sculptures of the Temple of Zeus date to around 460 BCE and show scenes of racing and wrestling, albeit mythological ones in states far removed from those of the typical athletic contest. Keep reading to learn about these significant works from the Early Classical period.
1. The west pedimental sculptures depict the Centauromachy, the mythical battle between the centaurs and Lapiths that ensued after the centaurs tried to make off with the Lapith women at the wedding of Perithoos. It was a very popular subject in Greek art going back to the Geometric period. Here, the sculptures vividly capture a range of emotions in the expressions of the subjects: gritty, determined, terrified, ferocious. Apollo, standing authoritatively in the center, is the only figure cool and collected in the face of the violence surrounding him.
2. The east pedimental sculptures, in contrast to the west, present the prelude to a moment of great violence. We witness the oath between Oinomaos and Pelops, two participants in a mythological chariot race. Oinomaos, the ruler of a village near Olympia, promises the hand of his daughter in marriage to whomever can best him in a race, but should the challenger lose, he must pay with his life. Pelops beats Oinomaos by deceit, replacing a pin in his chariot with one made of wax and breaking the murderous cycle with another murder. According to the poet Pindar, this deadly race may have been the mythological origins of the Olympic Games. Learn more: Pelops’ deceitful victory is but one of the many acts of treachery and bloodshed in the infamous House of Atreus, whose members’ myths figure prominently in the poems and plays of Greece. The family curse began with Tantalus, who served his son Pelops to the gods in an act of arrogance as a test of the gods’ omniscience. Pelos was restored to life, and Tantalus was punished forever in Hades, ‘tantalized’ by hanging fruit and water just out of reach. The cycle of violence finally ends several generations later with Orestes, whose murder of his father Agamemnon is acquitted by a jury headed by Athena herself.
3. The sculptures are considered to be masterpieces of Early Classical sculpture, and for good reason. By breaking with the homogeneity of the Archaic period sculptures that preceded them, the pedimental sculptures innovated with their diverse renderings of age, emotional expression, and social class. The stereotypically rigid Archaic pose has been abandoned as experimentation with shifted body weight is seen. A heightened awareness of anatomy is evident in the rendering of drapery over the body. The sculptures are also strikingly different than the idealized expressions favored during the High Classical period that followed. For example, the Centauromachy is also a featured subject on the Parthenon metopes, but there, the battle plays out with a heroic poise. Such idealization is nowhere to be seen here: a centaur sinks his teeth into the arm of a combatant, a Lapith woman tugs aggressively at the beard of her abductor, and pandemonium clearly reigns despite Apollo’s stalwart presence.
Phaidon Press. The Art Museum. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2011.