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Art Through Time: A Global View

Cosmology and Belief Art: Zeus of Artemision (also called Poseidon)

» Unknown Artist, Greece

Zeus of Artemision (also called Poseidon)

Zeus of Artemision (also called Poseidon)
Artist / Origin: Unknown Artist, Greece
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 460 BCE
Period: 500 BCE – 1 CE
Material: Bronze
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: approx. 7 ft. (2.1 m.)
Location: National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Credit: Courtesy of Vanni / Art Resource, NY

Created in the beginning of the Classical Period of Greek sculpture (ca. 480–300 BCE), this elegant and balanced figure is the embodiment of beauty, control, and strength.

Thought to represent the mightiest of the Olympian gods, Zeus (or less likely Poseidon), this monumental bronze sculpture was found in two pieces at the bottom of the sea off the Cape of Artemision in the 1920s. Zeus is shown in full heroic nudity with his left arm and foot thrust dynamically forward in the direction of his foes, while his right leg and arm are raised and slightly bent, implying movement. Zeus is the militant protector ready for action and would have originally been holding a thunderbolt (or trident, in the case of Poseidon).

Meant to be seen from one ideal vantage point—standing facing the vast and muscular torso—this three-dimensional figure demonstrates complete mastery of anatomy. From the intense expression on his face, the bulging veins of his feet, and the variegated transitions between muscles, Zeus appears to be rendered from a human model. However, on closer examination, it is clear that aspects have been simplified and proportions expanded to give the figure the exemplary body worthy of his divine status. The sculpture, which presents its subject as superhuman rather than suprahuman, is in keeping with the Greek conception of gods as immortal and immensely powerful, yet subject to the personality flaws and unpredictable emotions of mortal beings.

The Greek word for image, agalma, means “delight,” and a sculpture like this would have been created for the delight of not only Greek citizens, but also the gods. This statue was probably created as a votive for a temple dedicated to Zeus. In presenting such works as offerings, the Greeks attempted to appease their gods, earning divine assistance or favor in return.

Expert Perspective:
Andrew Stewart Professor of the History of Art and Greek Studies, UC Berkeley

“From the time of Homer onwards, the forms, functions, powers of the gods were defined and woe betide you if you didn’t recognize them. That’s what Greek religion is all about, it’s about recognizing the divine and paying it its due; otherwise it will come and zap you, maybe not immediately, maybe not in your generation, but at some point the gods will take their revenge. Right from the very beginning of Greek art, art objects are used in order to conciliate or placate the gods. So, you dedicate to them a fine, small bronze, or a pot, or a terracotta—sometimes in their image, sometimes in yours, and sometimes in nobody’s in particular. The Greek word for an image is agalma, which actually means ‘delight.’ So, it can be a delight for mortals, but most particularly, a delight for the gods. One way you can delight the gods is to show them their own representation as beautiful as possible or as strikingly as possible. Thus, images of smiting gods borrowed from the ancient Near East are common in sixth century Greece. The great Zeus from Artemision shows Zeus at the apex of his power.

I think the Zeus of Artemision—which we now know was probably by an Athenian sculptor because they’ve analyzed the clay core and found it comes from Attica—may not be the very best of the works produced in the first generation of the Classical, but as far as our purposes are concerned it’s an absolute literally a godsend, because what it does is it gives us a new, as it were, revised vision of the god compared with the images that we have of him in the Archaic period. In the Archaic period we have a lot of small bronzes of Zeus and other gods, lunging forward, brandishing weapons, bodies leaning forward, muscles straining, looking at their opponent, sometimes with their left arm outstretched. The sculptor here has brought the image completely upright, has stilled it, inscribed its contours within those of a square, elongated his arms, so that, in fact, if the god were to drop his hands to his sides, his arms, his fingertips would touch his knee caps, kind of like a gorilla. And the whole purpose of that is to inscribe the god within a square, a square that is itself made up of lots of little squares—forty-nine of them to be exact—because the Zeus is seven feet high and the stretch of his arms is seven foot also. So he himself, as it were, embodies the order which he enforces. Zeus is the great enforcer. And in this case he needs no muscular strain, no effort to do this. Divinity to this artist is supremely effortless. All you have to do, in fact, is to gesture and his will is done. Here he is supremely poised, an icon of self-control and of limitless power which merely has to be described in order for it to transpire. And that’s the brilliance of this statue.

Of course, every Greek knew that in reality Zeus was the biggest lecher on the planet, very far from himself manifesting order, manifesting ethics or ethical self-control. So here what the sculptor points out is the contrast between Zeus’s power and Zeus’s cosmic role as enforcer, and what every Greek knew as Zeus’s own character.”

Additional Resources

Boardman, John. Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period, A Handbook. London: Thames & Hudson, 1985.

Finn, David. Greek Monumental Bronze Sculptures. New York: Vendome Press, 1983.

Kaltsas, Nikos. Sculpture in the National Archeology Museum, Athens. Translated by David Hardy. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002.

Stewart, Andrew. Classical Greece and the Birth of Western Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Stewart, Andrew. Greek Sculpture: An Exploration. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

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