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Marble naturally illuminated the statue of Zeus at Olympia

With a height of twelve metres and built from ivory and gold overlaid on a wooden frame, the statue of Zeus was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Located in the interior of a temple at Olympia in ancient Greece, it was crafted in the year 432 BC by the sculptor Pheidias.

Marble naturally illuminated the statue of Zeus at Olympia
Reconstruction of the statue of Zeus in the Hermitage Museum 
[Credit: George Shuklin/WikiCommons]
Despite its large size, and the darkness of the temple, which had neither windows nor a door of great size, various classical sources describe the eyes and the hair of the god in detail, which would indicate some type of lighting by natural means.

"The roof would illuminate in a natural way, albeit tenuously, the face and head of the Zeus at Olympia", explains Rosa Weigand, professor of the department of optics of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM).

In a study published in the journal Applied Optics, Weigand and a team of researchers have attempted to reproduce the lighting conditions that occurred in this ancient Greek temple more than 2,000 years ago, using samples of the two types of marble that were used in the roof.

"The experiments with marble fragments of 2.8 and 3 cm in thickness allow us to affirm that, in our samples, the best light is transmitted by the Pentelic marble rather than the marble from Paros," says Paul A. Garcia, co-author of the study and project collaborator from the Institute of Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean and the Middle East (CSIC), whose doctoral dissertation is the basis of the research.

This property of the marble could be one of the reasons that led the Greeks to replace the original material of the temple, brought from the island of Paros, with plates of Pentelic marble, although, as the authors say, this could also have been due to economic or commercial issues.

The gaze of God 

"The reason that made us consider the lighting from the roof is that ancient sources place great emphasis on the eyes and hair when describing the Zeus of Olympia," says Jose Jacobo Storch of Grace, Professor of the Faculty of Geography and History of the UCM and director of the study.

In order to reach these conclusions, the researchers - among which are also experts from the Institute of optics of the CSIC - used a light meter, which estimated the transmittance (amount of light that passes through a body) of the samples, and a spectrophotometer, to measure the resulting spectrum and see what wavelengths are more efficient.

"The results reveal a high transmission area in the yellow-red end of the spectrum, which is suitable for illuminating an object made of ivory and gold", say the authors. This natural lighting was sufficient for the statue to be perceived by any person when entering the temple, once their eyesight had become accustomed to the darkness.

Unfortunately nothing remains of the sculpture today. Following the destruction of the temple in Olympia after several earthquakes, the statue moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) where it was destroyed by fire in the year 475 A.D.

"What remains are representations in ancient coins and paintings on ceramics, in addition to detailed literary descriptions," says Garcia.

Source: Agencia SINC [April 20, 2015]
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