Niobe on Greek friezes (3)

So far I’ve only written about Niobe’s children on Roman Sarcophagi and frescoes but the oldest carved Niobe’s were of course Greek, because that’s where her myth originates from.

We even know some Greek artists that made friezes with Niobe and her children. We know when they made them and we roughly know what the art work looked like, but they are lost unfortunately.

So how do we know so much about them if the art is lost? Well the friezes made by these Greek artists happened to work at a world-famous place at the time that drew a lot of attention and therefore we have some written information about them even today. These sculptors,  Colotes and Phidias, were quite famous at their time as well and that is  probably why they were both working at the Temple of Zeus, one of the seven world wonders.

niobe 49


Unfortunately the temple was destroyed, but we know thanks to descriptions of contemporaries what the Zeus statue looked like, who worked on it and where the different art works were placed. The famous sculptor Pheidias made the colossal statue of Zeus and Pausanias described his work in the following way:

The colossal statue of Zeus in the Olympia Zeus Temple was produced by Pheidias around 432 BC (probably even later). The statue was 9.90 meters high, according to poet Kallinikos (3rd BC) whereas in total (including the stand) was 12.40 m. high, 6.65m long and 9.67 deep.

The god sits on a throne, and he is made of gold and ivory (…And the Greeks in my opinion showed an unsurpassed zeal and generosity in honoring the gods, in that they imported ivory from India and Aethiopia to make images…). On his head lies a garland which is a copy of olive shoots. In his right hand he carries a Victory, which, like the statue, is of ivory and gold; she wears a ribbon and–on her head–a garland. In the left hand of the god is a scepter, ornamented with every kind of metal, and the bird sitting on the scepter is the eagle. The sandals also of the god are of gold, as is likewise his robe. On the robe are embroidered figures of animals and the flowers of the lily.

The throne was decorated by Pheidias’ pupils and famous painters Panainos and Kolotis with mythological scenes.

The throne is adorned with gold and with jewels, to say nothing of ebony and ivory. Upon it are painted figures and wrought images. There are four Victories, represented as dancing women, one at each foot of the throne, and two others at the base of each foot. On each of the two front feet are set Theban children ravished by sphinxes, while under the sphinxes Apollo and Artemis are shooting down the children of Niobe.

According to Pausanias the frieze with Artemis killing the daughters of Niobe was made by Colotes a Greek sculptor in the 2nd half of the 5th century BC. So yeah that is a lot older than the roman sarcophagi.

They think that it looked something like this:

niobe 47

Pausanias described his work like this:

The table is made of ivory and gold, and is the work of Colotes. Colotes is said to have been a native of Heracleia, but specialists in the history of sculpture maintain that he was a Parian, a pupil of Pasiteles, who himself was a pupil of…. There are figures of Hera, Zeus, the Mother of the gods, Hermes, and Apollo with Artemis. Behind is the disposition of the games.

So you would have to imagine that frieze in ivory and gold. It was very unusual for sculptors to work with gold and ivory at that time. Most worked with marble. It was a sign of great trust in both the integrity and the skill of the sculptor to allow him to work with such valuable materials.

The other frieze is believed to be made by Pheidias himself. This one would have looked more or less like this and show Apollo killing Niobe’s sons:

niobe 46

Unfortunately the temple of Zeus with the friezes was destroyed a long time ago, but thanks to a Roman artist we have an idea how Pheidias’ frieze looked because a Russian artist in the 1st century BCE based the relief of a front panel of a sarcophagus on the design of Pheidias’ work  centuries earlier. He made his work in Roman marble though while Pheidias most likely used gold and ivory to match Colotes’ frieze and the rest of the statue.

Here is what the Roman sarcophagus front panel from 1st century BCE looks like:

niobe 48

It is in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg nowadays.

This is a good example of how an artist that would otherwise be seen as a mere copyist all of a sudden becomes very relevant when something happens to the original work he based his work on.

Καλησπέρα φίλοι μου, Hilde



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