Olympia was one of the two most important religious centers of the Greek world, the other being Delphi. Olympia was sacred to Zeus, and the great Doric temple of Zeus was thus the chief among the group of religious buildings there assembled. The erection of this temple probably falls in the years just preceding and following 460 B.C. A slight exploration carried on by the French in 1829 and the thorough excavation of the site by the Germans in 1875-81 brought to light extensive remains of its sculptured decoration. This consisted of two pediment groups and twelve sculptured metopes, besides the acroteria. In the eastern pediment the subject is the preparation for the chariot-race of Pelops and Oenomaus. The legend ran that Oenomaus, king of Pisa in Elis, refused the hand of his daughter save to one who should beat him in a chariot-race. Suitor after suitor tried and failed, till at last Pelops, a young prince from over sea, succeeded In the pediment group Zeus, as arbiter of the impending contest, occupies the center. On one side of him stand Pelops and his destined bride, on the other Oenomaus and his wife, Sterope. The chariots, with attendants and other more or less interested persons follow.
The moment chosen by the sculptor is one of expectancy rather than action, and the various figures are in consequence simply juxtaposed, not interlocked. Far different is the scene presented by the western pediment. The subject here is the combat between Lapiths and Centaurs, one of the favorite themes of Greek sculpture, as of Greek painting. The Centaurs, brutal creatures, partly human, partly equine, were fabled to have lived in Thessaly. There too was the home of the Lapiths, who were Greeks. At the wedding of Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, the Centaurs, who had been bidden as guests, became inflamed with wine and began to lay hands on the women. Hence a general metee, in which the Greeks were victorious. The sculptor has placed the god Apollo in the center, undisturbed amid the wild tumult; his presence alone assures us what the issue is to he. The struggling groups extend nearly to the corners, which are occupied each by two reclining female figures, spectators of the scene. In each pediment the composition is symmetrical, every figure having its corresponding figure on the opposite side. Yet the law of symmetry is interpreted much more freely than in the Aegina pediments of a generation earlier; the corresponding figures often differ from one another a good deal in attitude, and in one instance even in sex.
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