Saturday, 6 October 2012

Olympic colossi

The Orbit from inside the Olympic Park

As you probably know by now, I enjoy drawing comparisons between the Modern and the Ancient Olympic Games.
The other day we drove past the Olympic Park on the A12, and I noticed that  more of the Orbit sculpture is visible from the road now. 

Building the Orbit, from Anish Kapoor's website 

I followed progress with interest last year while they built it, as I was writing about building a different kind of Olympic colossus at the time. I never quite believed that something as odd as the Orbit would be identified with the excitement of the Games, but I was always in awe of those huge cranes ...

The sculptor of the Orbit, Anish Kapoor, always takes me by surprise with his creations - sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not.

Sian Frances' magnificent impression of the statue
In Ancient Olympia it seems there were many amazing sculptures, more and more as the years wore on. The most famous sadly no longer exists. I've tried to describe the building of it in The Boy with Two Heads. As you probably know, it was made by Phidias, the famous Athenian sculptor who was responsible for much of the decoration and design of the Parthenon on the Athens Akropolis. According to Pausanias, this statue was a wooden structure overlaid with gold and ivory (see § 5.11.1). It stood (or sat!) 14 metres high, and was one of the Seven Wonders of the World for hundreds of years. It represented Zeus in his Temple in the sacred precinct of the Altis at Olympia. The Olympic Games were held in his honour. I had to guess about how the statue was built as I could not find any descriptions of the process, but I enjoyed imagining it. 

You may remember the scene in The Boy with Two Heads where the hero, Themis, helps install the face, one of the last components to be put in place:

   Themis lay along the beam and watched as a huge parcel, crated and wrapped, was brought to the door [of the Temple] by a team of ten men. He could hear the stamping of the oxen at the Temple ramp. The hubbub inside suddenly stilled.
   Phidias strode into the Temple and stopped in the middle of the floor, in front of the cloth-covered statue. He turned towards the doors.
   ‘Master Harpist!’ he called, and a musician stepped out from behind a column. ‘You and your musicians should be up in the gallery. When I make this signal with my hand you will play in the rhythm we agreed.’
   ‘Certainly, Master Phidias,’ said the harpist with a nod, and he and his two colleagues ran up the stairs to appear opposite Panainos.
   The great bundle was carried into the open space beside Phidias. The slatted casing fell away and a sling of ropes was tied round the wrapped disc inside.
   At the signal from Phidias, the musicians began to play. Themis and the men in the roof all shuffled into their places. Men on the floor pulled on their ropes. Curtains of dust drifted down as the wrapped disc rose towards the ceiling, swaying in time to the music. When it was almost touching the beams there, Themis and his team began work. They pulled and stopped as directed by the music. The disc moved towards the gaping front of the head. Men wriggled along beams, moved pulleys and re-laid ropes. 

So Phidias and Anish Kapoor 
both created world-famous colossal Olympian sculptures, although for very different reasons. And of course, their building methods were a bit different, too.

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