Life Lessons from the World’s Greatest Artist (Who You’ve Probably Never Heard Of)

Though he was the greatest artist in the greatest city, Phidias was haunted by trials and tribulations throughout his career. It was how he reacted that really defines his legacy

Flip through any of the latest art history or humanities textbooks and you’re likely to find little or no mention of his name. He doesn’t even appear once in McGraw Hill’s “The Humanities Through the Arts” – now in its 10th edition. ‘Picasso’ now registers no fewer than 34 entries in the index.

Still, Phidias (also spelled “Pheidias”) deserves better. He was a phenomenon in his day – the Michelangelo of the ancient world, if you will. He was heralded as the greatest artist in what was arguably the greatest city (Athens), with fame reaching as far as Greek civilization.

But perhaps most notable are the trials that Phidias faced during his lifetime, and most importantly, how he responded. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Bit of a biopic first, as readers are probably unfamiliar with the ancient giant and his achievements; and these, as we shall see, form the basis for appreciating its impressive character.

If you’ve ever made it to the British Museum or otherwise glimpsed the legendary Elgin Marbles, at least you’ve seen, if not recognized, Phidias’ achievements. In fact, Phidias was the one responsible for these masterful works of marble statuary that adorned the ancient Greek Parthenon – the towering artistic feat that paid tribute to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens.

The marble friezes – three-dimensional reliefs on the walls of the temple – were still prized 24 centuries later for their beautiful representation of the human figure. The Elgin figures have a strikingly lifelike quality, arranged in compositions that generally lend a ‘monumental’ quality – as art historians describe it.

“Phidias Shows the Parthenon Frieze to His Friends”, 1868, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Public domain)

But perhaps most important, artistically speaking, was the restrained and harmonious representation of the human body. This became known as the hallmark of Phidias and gave rise to what is today considered the quintesseoriginal “classical” or “idealistic” style. It is the epitome of Greek art from the later 5th to 4th century BC

(This is in contrast to the later “Hellenistic” style, which was characterized by a fixation on pathos, melodrama and emotional extremism. Gone was the balance, harmony and sense of self-control in Phidias’s works from the Golden Age of Athens. )

But the Elgin marbles pale with grandeur at what Phidias and his workshop devised for the innermost sanctuary of the Parthenon: a towering statue of Athena Parthenos, three stories high, made of ivory and gold.

You read that right: not decorated in the two precious fabrics, but really made of it.

According to archaeologist and art historian Kenneth Lapatin, Phidias pioneered a highly original technique of ivory carving that allowed him and his workshop crew to “roll out” elephant tusk ivory—much like pencil sharpening—and use it in any shape or form. form the desired shape. † Large, molded pieces of this ivory were thus attached to a large wooden frame, piece by piece, painstakingly, with elaborate gold decorations then applied to her figure – giving Athena the glory her Athenian patrons thought worthy of her. The statue alone would have taken an estimated nine years.

Epoch Times Photo
Alan LeQuire’s Athena Parthenos (1990) recreates the lost image of Phidias, using modern materials. It is housed in a full-size replica of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park. (Dean Dixon/Free Art License)

By 432 BC, when the Parthenon project was completed, Phidias was heralded as a genius and master.

But with his growing greatness came adversaries. And herein lies the second part of Phidias’ story: the adversity he faced, and what we can learn from his response millennia later.

What we often forget, when we’re blinded by the glamor and glory that come with fame and fortune – what young athlete doesn’t aspire to be the next Tom Brady or singer Beyoncé? – is at what high cost, or with what challenges, such a celebrity comes.

Phidias would soon find out.

Sometime after he completed his work on the Parthenon (the historical sources are not clear on the details), the unthinkable happened: Phidias was accused of stealing gold intended for his Athena.

Although he was able to prove in an Athenian court that he was innocent of the charges (one story states that he had ingeniously made Athena’s gold decorations removable so that they could be weighed, in the event of such charges), his opponents raised the stakes.

They then accused him of wickedness – of all things. He is said to have included images of himself and his powerful patron, Pericles, in Athena’s shield. (An accusation that, if true, should be forgiven, given the creative freedom with which artists over the centuries have tried to embed their ‘signature’ or likeness into a work. Think Raphael’s ‘School of Athens,’ for instance – for which no one today thinks less of the Renaissance master.)

The sequence of events that followed is, again, a bit murky, but what is clear is that this charge was harder to shake off. Phidias was either exiled (according to some stories) or imprisoned in an Athenian prison (according to other stories). In both cases, he didn’t do so well in court this time.

However, how did Phidias react? Was he devastated, as we might imagine, having just poured his heart and soul into a groundbreaking and majestic work, day in and day out, for nearly ten years? Or perhaps embittered, as it rightly seems? Did he hang up his hammer and chisel and call it a profession?

While we have to speculate about the psychological details of the “dark night of the soul” that Phidias must have experienced, what the historical record makes clear is this: he bounced back, better than ever.

Barely down for the count, Phidias responded to the heartbreaking beatings in the most stylishly classic of ways. Instead of letting his opponents come to him, he got up again. He took on an assignment to repeat the feat, as it were, at Olympia – then the site of the greatest event of the ancient world, the Olympic Games. There he would go on to build what became known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World: a massive, 40-foot (12-meter) high statue of ivory, gold, and ebony of the greatest Greek god, Zeus.

(The project itself would be another feat of perseverance: It took Phidias and his helpers eight years to build. It was this same statue that would later inspire Daniel Chester French’s Lincoln statue at his memorial in Washington, DC.)

Epoch Times Photo
A display of Phidias’ sculpture of Zeus in the main temple of Olympia, by Quatremère de Quincy, 1815. The statue was eventually destroyed. (Public domain)

You can hardly think of a better response to your adversaries, if not life’s adversity more generally: to get up again, do it all over again, and make things even better and more glorious than before.

As much as the magnificent classical style and legendary monuments that Phidias left to the world, it seems that his life story contains something of just as much value.

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