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Work Fourth metope from the west façade of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Quatrième métope ouest : le taureau de Crète

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The decoration of the Temple of Zeus, built at Olympia between 472 and 456 BC, reflects the new spirit of Greek sculpture in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. The metopes illustrate the twelve labors of Heracles, including the capture of the Cretan bull. Heracles is shown grappling with the bull, following King Minos's refusal to sacrifice it to Poseidon. Man and animal confront each other in a powerful struggle; the composition shows the influence of the Early Classical style at its height.

The Temple of Zeus at Olympia

This metope is among the carved fragments of the Doric frieze of the Temple of Zeus, discovered at Olympia in 1829 by the members of the French Expédition du Morée (the Peloponnese was known as Morea until the nineteenth century). The metope was given to France the following year by the Greek Senate. The great Temple of Zeus was built by the Elian architect Libon between 472 and 456 BC. It appears that a number of workshops from all parts of Greece collaborated on the decoration under the leadership of the "Master of Olympus", who was in charge of designing the temple's pediments and metopes. This vast worksite was an experimental laboratory for the sculptors, who produced a veritable manifesto of the new spirit sweeping through Greek art in the aftermath of the Persian Wars (490-480 BC).

The struggle between Heracles and the Cretan bull

The high-relief metopes on the temple's east and west façades, created around 460 BC, were carved in Parian marble highlighted with red pigment and additional elements in metal. The reliefs depict the labors of Heracles, son of Zeus and the mythical founder of the Olympic games. For the first time, the number of labors was set at twelve - from the victory over the Nemean lion to the cleaning of the Augean stables. This metope, the fourth on the west side, shows the hero in combat with the white Cretan bull which Minos, King of Crete, had refused to sacrifice to Poseidon. The god, angry at this insult, caused the bull to go on a rampage. Heracles captured the beast on the orders of his cousin Eurystheus. He is pictured here in full struggle, with his right arm lifted ready to stun the bull with his club, while forcefully pulling back its head by means of a metal cord held in his left hand.

The Early Classical style

This relief is a product of the apogee of the Early Classical style (480-450 BC). The sculptor has made clever use of the architectural space available to him, structuring his composition around two opposing diagonals designed to reinforce the violence of the combat. The bodies of the protagonists are crossed, and their heads meet in the center of the panel. Extraneous decorative elements, which were widely used in the Archaic period (sixth century BC) have here been downplayed to create a more sober effect. The treatment of the human figure has changed significantly - the masculine anatomy is more lifelike, and Heracles's pensive face displays the hero's inner emotions, rather than the conventional Archaic smile. The body is shown in action, free from the hieratic constraints of the earlier period. Here, the three-quarters view juxtaposes the face, in profile, with the forward-facing torso. The artists at Olympia also introduced elements of perspective through the use of skillful transitions from low-relief carving to fully three-dimensional sculpture.

Bibliography

Hamiaux (M.), Les sculptures grecques, I, 2e édition, Paris, 2001, p. 111 et 118, n 106
Rolley (Cl.), La sculpture grecque. 1-Des origines au milieu du Ve siècle, Paris, 1994, p. 369-370, fig. 389

Technical description

  • Quatrième métope ouest : le taureau de Crète

    Vers 460 avant J.-C.

  • Marbre de Paros

    H. : 1,14 m. ; L. : 1,52 m.

  • Don du Sénat hellénique, 1830 , 1830

    Heracles and the Cretan Bull

    MA 716

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    The Olympia room
    Room 407

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