December 11, 2007


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Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

'Phidias'''Italic text (or Pheidias) (in ancient Greek, Φειδίας) (c.480 BC - c.430 BC), son of Charmides, (not to be mistaken for the Charmides who participated in the tyranny at Athens) , was an ancient Greek sculptor, painter and architect, universally regarded as the greatest of all Classical sculptors.

Phidias designed the statues of the goddess Athena on the Athenian Acropolis (Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon and the Athena Promachos) and the colossal seated Statue of Zeus at Olympia in the 5th century BC. The Athenian works were apparently commissioned by Pericles in 447 BC. Pericles used the money from the maritime League of Delos to pay Phidias for his work.


Free copy of the Athena Parthenos signed by Antiochos, 1st century BC (Palazzo Altieri, Rome)
Free copy of the Athena Parthenos signed by Antiochos, 1st century BC (Palazzo Altieri, Rome)

We have varying accounts of his training. Hegias of Athens, Ageladas of Argos, and the Thasian painter Polygnotus, have all been regarded as his teachers. In favour of Ageladas it may be said that the influence of the many Dorian schools is certainly to be traced in some of his work.

Of his life we know little apart from his works. Pausanias, however, mentions two of his students, who also were his eromenoi. One is Agoracritus who is also known for his sculpture of Nemesis at Rhamnus.[1] Another beloved, even more closely associated with the sculptor, is Pantarkes, an Elian youth and winner of the boy's wrestling match at the 86th Olympics in 436 BC. Pausanias[2] reports a tradition that the boy was the model for one of the figures sculpted in the throne of the Olympian Zeus. Another tradition, reported by Clement of Alexandria, has Phidias carving "Kalos Pantarkes" ("Pantarkes is handsome") into the god's little finger.[3]

Of his death we have two discrepant accounts. According to Plutarch he was made an object of attack by the political enemies of Pericles, and died in prison at Athens, but according to Philochorus, as quoted by a scholiast on Aristophanes, he fled to Elis, where he made the great statue of Zeus for the Eleans, but was afterwards put to death by them. For several reasons the first of these tales is preferable: it would not have been possible for him to have died in prison immediately after the creation of the Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis, as he made the Zeus of Olympia after his involvement with the Parthenon.


Plutarch gives in his Life of Pericles an account of the vast artistic activity which went on at Athens while that statesman was in power. He used for the decoration of his own city the money furnished by the Athenian allies for defence against Persia: it is very fortunate that after the time of Xerxes Persia made no deliberate attempt against Greece. "In all these works," says Plutarch, "Phidias was the adviser and overseer of Pericles." Phidias introduced his own portrait and that of Pericles on the shield of his Athena Parthenos statue. And it was through Phidias that the political enemies of Pericles struck at him. It thus abundantly appears that Phidias was closely connected with Pericles, and a dominant spirit in the Athenian art of the period. But it is not easy to go beyond this general assertion into details.

It is important to observe that in resting the fame of Phidias upon the sculptures of the Parthenon we proceed with little evidence. No ancient writer ascribes them to him, and he seldom, if ever, executed works in marble. In antiquity he was celebrated for his statues in bronze, and his chryselephantine works (statues made of gold and ivory). Plutarch tells us that he superintended the great works of Pericles on the Acropolis, but this phrase is vague; inscriptions prove that the marble blocks intended for the pedimental statues of the Parthenon were not brought to Athens until 434 BC, which was probably after the death of Phidias. And there is a marked contrast in style between these statues and the certain works of Phidias. It is therefore probable that most if not all of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon was the work of pupils of Phidias, such as Alcamenes and Agoracritus, rather than his own.

The earliest of the great works of Phidias were dedications in memory of Marathon, from the spoils of the victory. At Delphi he erected a great group in bronze including the figures of Apollo and Athena, several Attic heroes, and Miltiades the general. On the acropolis of Athens he set up a colossal bronze statue of Athena, the Athena Promachos, which was visible far out at sea. At Pellene in Achaea, and at Plataea he made two other statues of Athena, as well as a statue of Aphrodite in ivory and gold for the people of Elis.

Among the ancient Greeks themselves two works of Phidias far outshone all others, and were the basis of his fame; the colossal chryselephantine figures in gold and ivory of Zeus at Olympia and of Athena Parthenos at Athens, both of which belong to about the middle of the 5th century BC. Of the Zeus we have unfortunately lost all trace save small copies on coins of Elis, which give us but a general notion of the pose, and the character of the head. The god was seated on a throne, every part of which was used as a ground for sculptural decoration. His body was of ivory, his robe of gold. His head was of somewhat archaic type: the Otricoli mask which used to be regarded as a copy of the head of the Olympian statue is certainly more than a century later in style. A number of ancient writers document a story regarding the love of the sculptor for an Elian boy, Pantarkes. It was said that to honor his eromenos Phidias carved the boy's name on the little finger of the Olympian Zeus, and his portrait in the figure of a victorious athlete at the foot of the statue. (Plutarch, Erotikos; Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, 53, 4) Of the Athena Parthenos two small copies in marble have been found at Athens which have no excellence of workmanship, but have a certain evidential value as to the treatment of their original.

Our actual knowledge of the works of Phidias is very small. There are many stately figures in the Roman and other museums which clearly belong to the same school as the Parthenos; but they are copies of the Roman age, and not to be trusted in point of style. Adolf Furtwangler proposed to find in a statue of which the head is at Bologna, and the body at Dresden, a copy of the Lemnian Athena of Phidias; but his arguments (Masterpieces, at the beginning) are anything but conclusive. Much more satisfactory as evidence are some 5th century torsos of Athena found at Athens. The very fine torso of Athena in the École des Beaux-Arts at Paris, which has unfortunately lost its head, may perhaps best serve to help our imagination in reconstructing the original statue.

Ancient critics take a very high view of the merits of Phidias. What they especially praise is the ethos or permanent moral level of his works as compared with those of the later "pathetic" school. Demetrius calls his statues sublime, and at the same time precise. That he rode on the crest of a splendid wave of art is not to be questioned: but it is to be regretted that we have no morsel of work extant for which we can definitely hold him responsible except for one.

In 1958 archaeologists found the workshop at Olympia where Phidias assembled the gold and ivory Zeus. There were still some shards of ivory at the site, moulds and other casting equipment, and the base of a black glaze drinking cup[4] engraved "I belong to Phidias."[5]

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