The East Pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, by Dorothy Filiotis

We are things of a day. What are we? What are we not? The dream of a shadow is man, no more. But when brightness comes, and the gods give it, there is a shining light on man, and his life is sweet. Pindar of Thebes, Pythian 8.95-98

In the second quarter of the fifth century BCE, the great classical temple of Zeus was built in the center of the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia. The pediments and metopes of the Doric temple were carved from Parian marble. The east pediment of the Temple of Zeus portrays the preparation for the famous chariot race between Oinomaos and Pelops. The young man Pelops wished to win the hand of Hippodameia, the daughter of Oinomaos, king of Pisa (a polis that controlled Olympia). But to do so, he had to win a chariot race against her father, whose horses were said to belong to the god Ares.  If he lost the race, the consequence was death.  The sculpture group on the pediment captures this moment before the race; as Zeus presides in the middle, Pelops considers the consequences while Oinomaos assumes things will go as they have with 12 previous suitors (all dead).

Pindar’s ode is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of man, of his fleeting existence and relationship to what is great and infinite. This is an excellent vision in the context of competition for it connects success to the divine and it somewhat relieves man from personal responsibility for his performance, while still fuelling the effort to excel. The east pediment of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia frames similar ideas in its presentation of the race between Oinomaos and Pelops.  One of the most important features of the story is precisely the ephemerality of the protagonists.  One is a king, puffed with certainty of himself, the other just a young man about to risk his life for love.  Everything will change in an instant and the unexpected will happen.  The king and all his unmatched power becomes nothing and the young man is celebrated ever more for his admirable achievement.

On the pediment, the competitors stand equally matched and unaware of the divine who observes from above and center casting his auspicious gaze towards the fated winner.  The implication is that Zeus favors the heroic youth, giving his mortal endeavors a divine shine, a touch of eternity.  As Pindar suggests, there are infinite and invisible powers which are outside a mere man’s control.  Zeus’ drapery conceals mortal regions, removing him from cycles of life, carnal associations and human vulnerability.  His stature is impressive but calm, powerfully effortless. The old seer rests on the right and seems to look up at Zeus with a concerned expression, recognizing the incredible events to come. The seer is witness to the moment of divine intervention, acknowledging the existence of miracles; he could be reciting Pindar’s words.

Athletes and visitors looking up at the pediment at Olympia would have been reminded of the excitement of epic competition and the thrill of unexpected victory. The scene calls for all to strive for success, to emulate Pelops and to hope for that unpredictable touch of the divine. The tension of the scene preserves the height of anticipation, bursting with potential, it is a perfect motif for the spirit of the games.  The intersection of the eternal and the ephemeral exhibits to all visitors, their presence in the place of miracles.