Zeus: what did he look like?

In Greek mythology, Zeus was the ruler and most-powerful of all the gods. As the ancient Greeks developed these stories, how would an artist decide how to portray an imaginary character? What kind of "look" would Zeus need in order to show his power and supreme importance? Artsology did an investigation to see how artists have portrayed Zeus over the centuries, and have found a variety of depictions below.


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Here's three initial depictions of Zeus to get us started: below left, Zeus is seen here as a dark-haired and bearded man on this Greek red figure vase, circa 450 BC. Below center, Zeus has a similar look here with relatively short hair and the beard pointed forward. This bronze sculpture is from Cape Artemision, circa 460 BC. And below right, we have a Roman marble head of "Zeus Ammon," circa 120 - 160 AD. If you look closely, he has ram's horns, which reflects an Egyptian influence via the god "Ammon" (also spelled Amun, Amon), who was also "king of the Gods." So this Roman sculpture combines a classical Greek image of the bearded Zeus with the ram's horns of the Egyptian Ammon for a hybrid representation.

Zeus as portrayed on a red figure vase and two marble sculpture busts

Here's three more ways in which Zeus has been depicted in art, sculpture, and currency: below left, a colossol sculpture of the head of Zeus, from Nemrut Dagi in Turkey. Below center, a very small terracotta statuette which is very vague, but one can still make out the appearance of a beard on Zeus. Below right, Zeus as depicted on Greek currency circa 330 BC.

Zeus sculpture in Nemrut Dagi in Turkey, Zeus terracotta statuette, and Zeus on Greek coin

Moving beyond Greek and Roman art, let's look at some paintings. Below left we see an unusual depiction of Zeus as an artist (at left, sitting by the easel), painting a picture of butterflies, as portrayed by Italian Renaissance artist Dosso Dossi, circa 1515. Below right we have Thetis Appeals to Zeus, 1811, by the French neoclassical painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, which shows a stern Zeus sitting on his throne.

Painting of Zeus, Hermes and the Virtue by Italian Renaissance painter Dosso Dossi

Thetis Appeals to Zeus, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1811

Our last entry here on our study of Zeus is actually not Zeus, but rather George Washington portrayed as Zeus! This sculpture (below left) was created by Horatio Greenough in 1841. The United States Congress commissioned Greenough to create a sculpture of Washington to honor the centennial of Washington's birth. However, Congress was not aware of how Washington was to be portrayed, so you can imagine their surprise when the sculpture was delivered and revealed as a muscular, shirtless Washington imitating the role of Zeus, ruler of the gods in Greek mythology! Washington is most-often seen in military uniform, so this depiction is quite unexpected.

The 2nd century Roman marble sculpture (below right) shows a seated Zeus in a pose that was often used by Greek and Roman sculptors, and gives a very good idea of where Greenough came up with his idea for his sculpture of Washington as Zeus. As you can see, both seated figures are shirtless with a cloth draped over their legs, with one arm raised.

sculpture of George Washington posed like Zeus, by Horatio Greenough

Roman sculpture of a seated Zeus with arm raised