Apart from its connection to the cult of Zeus and the Olympic Games, the Museum features an invaluable collection of sculptures, as well as the largest collection of bronze objects in the world, mainly consisting of weaponry and statuettes. Monumental terracotta forms are another significant part of the treasure.
The most famous exhibits speak for themselves: the statue of Hermes by Praxiteles, Nike by Paeonios, the complex of Zeus and Ganymedes, semi-reconstructed figures from the pediment of the grand Temple of Zeus. Fully renovated and rearranged according to modern museological standards for the Athens Olympics in 2004, the Museum promises an unparalleled journey in Ancient Greece through the history of a sanctuary of paramount religious, political, and cultural importance.
The statue of Nike by Paeonios
Nike (=victory) statues represent personifications of victory, usually dedicated by a polis commemorate a victorious battle. Although not as famous as the Nike of Samothrace, now at the Louvre, the statue created by the sculptor Paeonios and erected in Olympia around 421 BC is generally considered the finest example of its type, besides being 200 years older.
The figure measured 2.90 metres in height and, when on site, it was placed on a 9-metre triangular column, resulting to an impressive 12-metre monument. It represents a personified winged victory, draped in a thin dress, the moment she lands to deliver her god-sent gift. In one hand, she holds a palm branch; in the other, a wild-olive wreath to crown the victors. Beside her, an eagle signifies Zeus’ presence and consent.
The Nike was dedicated by the inhabitants of Messene and Naupactus on the occasion of their victory against the Spartans, as we are informed by the inscription on the triangular column. However, for reasons of diplomacy and possibly out of fear for retaliation, the Spartans are not explicitly mentioned; instead, a vague reference is made to the 'enemies'.
The statue of Hermes by Praxiteles
Semele, Dionysus’ mother, was a princess of Thebes and one of Zeus’ numerous concubines. As most of the mortal women who shared this fate, she was hotly pursued by Hera, Zeus’ sister and lawful wife. While pregnant to Dionysus, Semele was convinced by Hera in disguise to ask Zeus to manifest before her in all his divine splendour. The manifestation was overwhelming for the mortal woman, who perished amidst the divine fire and thunders. Zeus managed to save the unborn baby, and Hermes took him back to Thebes, where he was raised by his mother’s sister, Ino.
The theme of Praxiteles’ statue focuses on a resting moment during the trip to Thebes. Hermes holds Dionysus in his left arm and probably a bunch of grapes in his right hand; if so, the theme also foretells Dionysus’ future as the god of wine, achieving a very interesting complex. Hermes’ body is considered one of the statues that set the canon for Ancient Greek beauty.