1902 Encyclopedia > Phidias

Ancient Greek sculptor, painter and architect
(c. 480 - 430 BC)

PHIDIAS (_______), the most famous of Greek sculptors, was born about 500 B.C., and began his artistic career, probably under the guidance of his father, Charmides of Athens, with the study of painting, an art which at that time had attained a singular largeness and dignity of style, while in sculpture these qualities were as yet being sought for with only a somewhat bold and rude result, as may be seen from the remains of it now at Olympia. To do justice to the art of sculpture in this direction there was need of a far greater mastery of tech-nical methods, and we may suppose it to have been with this end in view that Phidias, when he had determined to devote himself to sculpture, became a pupil of Ageladas of Argos. It is tempting to believe that it was still under the influence of this master that he executed (between 469 and 463) the Athenian monument at Delphi com-memorating the battle of Marathon; for Ageladas had sculptured at Delphi also a monumental group serving a similar purpose. In the group of Phidias Was a portrait statue of Miltiades, and from this circumstance it is rightly-inferred that the work had been commissioned at the time when Cimon, the son of Miltiades, was at the head of affairs in Athens. It was apparently at this same period that Phidias was employed to execute for the acropolis of Athens a statue of Athena. This statue, known in after times as "the Lemnian" and also as "the beauty," seems to have represented the goddess in the attitude of standing at rest, helmet in hand, as in a terra-cotta statuette from Cyprus in the British Museum. When Pericles succeeded to the administration of affairs, and it was determined to erect new temples and other public buildings worthy of the new glory which Athens had acquired in the Persian wars, it was to Phidias that the supervision of all these works was entrusted, with an army of artists and skilled workmen under him. By 438 the Parthenon was com-pleted, with its colossal statue of Athena in gold and ivory by Phidias himself, and with its vast extent of sculp-ture in marble, executed at least under his direction and reflecting in most parts his genius. Meantime the enor-mous expense of these undertakings had involved Phidias in the public discontent which was growing up round Pericles (Aristoph., Peace, 605). The story related by Plutarch (Pericles, 31) is that Menon, a former assistant of Phidias, had brought a charge against him of having appropriated part of the gold and ivory allowed him for the statue of Athena, and that, being acquitted on this charge, he was next denounced for introducing portraits of himself and of Pericles on the shield of Athena, and in consequence cf this charge died in prison, either a natural death or by poison. But these statements cannot be reconciled with the tradition that, after completing his Athena, he was invited to undertake at Olympia what proved to be the grandest work of his life, the colossal gold and ivory statue of Zeus in the newly-erected temple. According to this same tradition he died at Olympia, and it may be inferred that ho died much honoured there from the fact that his workshop was preserved in after times as a show-place for visitors, and that his descendants obtained an hereditary right to look after the great statue of Zeus. As a means of reconciling these conflicting statements it has been supposed that the charge of appropriating the gold had been made before he went to Olympia, and the charge of sacrilege when he had returned thence to Athens. Others again prefer to accept the story of Plutarch as it stands, and to assign the stay of Phidias in Olympia to an early period of his life—previous to 455. As to the charge of theft, it could never have reached a public trial, because every one acquainted with the management of the public treasures knew that the gold of the Athena was so sculptured that it could be removed annually and weighed by the officials of the treasuries. Pericles told the Athe-nians (Thuc, ii. 13) that it could be removed and utilized for the war. The other charge of having placed portraits of himself as a bald-headed old man (438) and of Pericles on the shield of Athena is incredible. Pericles with the helmet which he always wore was almost an ideal Greek in appearance. Among the Greeks fighting with the
Amazons on the shield of Athena it was probably easy to find a figure not unlike him. The same may be said of the bald-headed old man who was identified with Phidias. But there is a wide difference between idle gossip and a criminal charge. It is true that there is in the British Museum a marble fragment of what professes to be a copy of the shield, and on it there are portraits of Phidias and of Pericles; but these portraits answer so minutely to the description of Plutarch that there can hardly be a doubt of their having been produced subsequently to illus-trate some current story on which that description was founded. The workmanship is several centuries later than Phidias, and it would be strange if the portraits for which he had paid with his life had been left for so long a time on the shield, or had even been allowed at any moment to be perpetuated in a copy. In answer to this objection it was fabled that the portraits had been so fixed on the shield that they could not be removed without bringing down the whole work !

To obtain something like a fair judgment of the style of Phidias it is to the sculptures of the Parthenon now in the British Museum that we must turn (see ARCHAEOLOGY, vol. ii. p. 356). Though executed in what was to him an inferior material, marble, it yet happened that the elevated position which these sculptures were to occupy on the temple was such as to give scope for the highest powers of composition, and so far they may be regarded as a worthy monument of his genius. Alike in the frieze, the metopes, and the remaining figures of the pediments we have the same perfect rendering of the true effects of light and shade, which above all reveals the artist who can com- pose his figures and his groups so as to make the spectator feel that nature would not have done otherwise had nature been a sculptor. For composition of this kind there was necessary a most complete knowledge of form in all its details, since no part was so minute as not to affect the aspect of the whole. In this respect Phidias was famed in antiquity, and the Parthenon sculptures justify that fame. He must, however, have found finer opportunities in the colossal statues of gold and ivory, where the greater difficulty of duly distributing light and shade was rewarded with greater splendour of effect. In these statues the nude parts, such as the face, hands, and feet, were of ivory, the drapery of gold ; and in the statue of Zeus at Olympia the gold was enriched with enamelled colours, and the impression of the whole is described by ancient writers with unbounded praise (see vol. ii. p. 355, and A. S. Murray, Gr. Sculpt, ii. p. 123). Of the Athena in the Parthenon there exist two small copies in marble found in Athens, but so rude in execution as to be of no service in conveying a notion of the style of the original. On the acropolis, and not far from the Parthenon, stood a colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos by Phidias, the attitude and to some extent the type of which may be gathered from the small bronze found at Athens, and figured in vol. ii. p. 355. In Elis he executed a statue of Aphrodite in gold and ivory, and at Platsea a colossal Athena of wood gilt, with the face, hands, and feet of Pentelic marble. Bright but simple colours had been traditional in art before the time of Phidias. It is not supposed that he had sought to refine upon them as a colorist. What he did was to com- bine with their simplicity and brightness the ideal large- ness and dignity of conception which he shared with the great painters of his day, and the perfection of execution which he shared with the greatest of contemporary sculptors. (A. S. M.)

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