For nearly as long as humankind has had a creative impulse, we have been making statues. Sometimes that entails recreating people like national heroes or religious figures, and other times we strive to depict our most treasured ideals, such as freedom and resiliency. Statues can tell us a tremendous amount about the people who built them, and can offer a glimpse into the hearts and minds of those who came before us. Here are nine famous statues throughout history and the world.
The Great Sphinx of Giza
Giza Plateau, Egypt
Alongside the pyramids, the Great Sphinx of Giza is one of the most iconic symbols of ancient Egypt. Carved from the bedrock of the Giza Plateau, there are few definitive facts known about the origins of the Sphinx. Most scholars date its construction to the reign of the Pharaoh Khafre, in roughly 2500 BCE. It has been theorized that Khafre built the Sphinx in order to add his own unique mark to the landscape, much like his father Khufu, for whom the Great Pyramid of Giza was made. However, contemporary accounts don't make any reference to the statue, so it's not known for certain when it was completed or what its original name was.
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The earliest name for the Sphinx appears on the Dream Stele of Pharaoh Thutmose IV, erected in 1401 BCE. The Dream Stele gives the statue the name Hor-em-akhet, or “Horus of the Horizon”, a solar deity. By the time of Thutmose's rule, the Sphinx had been buried up to its shoulders by drifting sand, and the pharaoh led the first restoration effort made to dig the Sphinx out from the desert. Thutmose attributed his successful ascension to the throne to help from Hor-em-akhet, and introduced a Sphinx cult in his kingdom.
Although people remained aware of the Sphinx for the ensuing millennia, the lower portion below the head was buried again. In 1817, the first modern archaeological dig uncovered the Sphinx's chest, and in the 1930s, efforts were made to restore parts of the Sphinx that had fallen into disrepair. For as mysterious as it remains, the Sphinx continues to give us new insights into life in Egypt's Old Kingdom.
The Colossus of Rhodes
Island of Rhodes, Greece - Destroyed
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes has captured people’s imaginations for millennia. Erected in 280 BCE, the Colossus of Rhodes was built to commemorate the successful defense of the city against the armies of Demetrius I of Macedon, "The Besieger". Created by Chares of Lindos, the statue depicted Helios, the patron god of Rhodes.
Contrary to popular depictions, the Colossus of Rhodes most likely did not straddle the city’s harbor and was probably not holding a torch. However, Helios was a commonly depicted figure, particularly on Rhodian coinage, so scholars do have a good idea of what the statue’s face may have looked like. It most likely had curly hair surrounded by a series of spikes meant to represent the rays of the sun. There are several theories as to where the statue actually stood in the city, from alternative spots near the harbor entrance to a hill that overlooks the port.
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Although this statue has inspired writers and artists throughout the centuries, most of the facts about it will remain a mystery due to the simple fact that none of the original Colossus of Rhodes remains. The statue collapsed, snapping at the knees and toppling over, in 226 BCE when an earthquake struck the island. Fearing that they had offended Helios, the people of Rhodes declined to rebuild his likeness. The broken statue remained where it had fallen for the next 800 years and was a popular tourist site until Rhodes was captured by Arab forces in 653. The statue was then melted down and the materials were sold to a merchant. Although the story of the Colossus of Rhodes ends there, its legacy has lived on in the popular imagination.
The Terracotta Army
One of the most famous archeological discoveries of all time, the life-sized Terracotta Army that guards Emperor Quin Shi Huang's body is one of the greatest wonders of ancient China. Even by today’s standards, the Terracotta Army is an artistic marvel. Each soldier—archeologists estimate there are more than 8,000—has a unique facial design and expression and was positioned according to rank. The soldiers were found buried in trench-like corridors alongside large clay horse sculptures that were hitched to wooden chariots.
The Terracotta Army is just a small part of the large mausoleum complex of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. In addition to being the first to unite the people of the region into one kingdom, Qin also ordered the Great Wall of China to be built. Documents suggest that Qin ordered construction on his mausoleum soon after he took the throne at the age of 13. Work continued on the complex until 208 BCE, when political instability in the wake of Qin’s death brought the project to a halt.
Much of the contents of Qin’s mausoleum remain unknown to archeologists, and his actual tomb has never been excavated. Recent excavations around the tomb have revealed other terracotta figures that seem to depict acrobats, dancers, and musicians. As Qin’s mausoleum slowly gives up its secrets, the Terracotta Army will continue to stand sentinel, guarding their emperor's remains for years to come.
The Buddhas of Bamiyan
Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan - Destroyed
Carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan Valley sometime in the sixth century, the two Buddhas of Bamiyan were an excellent example of the far-reaching influence of Buddhism along the Silk Road. Although little is known about who commissioned the statues or who built them, they remain an important source of information on sixth-century Buddhist traditions in the Bamyan Valley, even after their destruction.
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Afghanistan’s Bamyan Valley was a popular stop near a main branch of the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected the East and West. Unlike other religions, Buddhism does not require site-specific worship, which made its spread along the Silk Road much easier. This rapid spread led to an abundance of Buddhist architecture. Still, the Buddhas of Bamiyan were always notable, having once been considered the largest Buddha carvings in the world.
To the dismay of people around the world, these statues were destroyed by Taliban forces in 2001, who claimed that they were false idols. Today, all that remains are the large outlines cut into the rock where the Buddhas once stood.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
One of the most emotionally stirring works of Renaissance sculpture, the Pietà launched the career of Michelangelo and set him on the path to greatness. The statue was originally commissioned in 1497 by Cardinal Jean de Bilhères for his future tomb. By the time of its completion in 1499, Michelangelo was just 24 years old.
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Translating to “the pity”, a Pietà refers to a depiction of Mary grieving over the dead body of Jesus after his crucifixion. Michelangelo’s Pietà is striking for several reasons. Multi-figured statues were rare at the time, so it would have stood out to any viewer. The elegant draping of Mary's clothes and the positions of their bodies are so lifelike that the Pietà almost doesn't seem as though it could have been carved from marble.
Of course, its tragic imagery is also unforgettable. The Pietà upholds the ideal that beauty on Earth reflects the beauty of God, a concept that was heavily inspired by Neoplatonism, a popular philosophy during the High Renaissance.
If the Pietà launched Michelangelo’s career, David cemented it. Soon after returning to his hometown of Florence from Rome in 1501, Michelangelo was commissioned to carve a statue of the biblical King David that would adorn the outside of the Florence Cathedral.
Unlike traditional depictions of the biblical figure, Michelangelo’s David depicts him before his famous battle with Goliath. Armed with his slingshot and a stone, David furrows his brow as he stares off into the distance, preparing for the battle ahead. David is also one of the best examples of contrapposto, an art style in which a human figure is depicted putting most of their weight on one foot, resulting in a natural twist in the torso.
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The Florentine statue of David also had tremendous political significance. The Medici family, who had ruled Florence for generations, had recently been expelled from the city. The citizens of Florence saw much of themselves in David, having triumphed over their own Goliath. Almost as soon as it was completed in 1504, it was decided that David should be placed in Florence’s main square, the Piazza della Signoria, where it could be easily viewed by the city’s residents. It remained there until 1873, when the statue was moved to the Gallery of the Academy of Florence.
The Statue of Liberty
New York City, United States
Standing proud over New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty is often seen as the personification of American ideals. In 1865, French intellectual Edouard de Laboulaye proposed that a statue representing liberty should be built for the United States in time to celebrate the centennial of the country’s independence, as well as to honor its recent abolition of slavery. Sculptor Auguste Bartholdi took up the task and began designing Liberty Enlightening the World in 1870. It was to depict Libertas, a Roman goddess of liberty.
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Much of the symbolism Bartholdi worked into his design took direct inspiration from de Laboulaye’s proposal. The spikes of her crown that stuck out in all directions were meant to resemble the rays of the sun, literally enlightening the world. Her tablet would be inscribed with the date of July 4, 1776 in Roman numerals, America’s first step towards liberty, and at her feet would sit broken chains and shackles, symbolizing the nation finally living up to its ideals through abolition. Bartholdi also specially picked his statue’s location for what was then called Bedloe’s Island, where she would be visible to every immigrant arriving by sea.
Liberty Enlightening the World was officially unveiled on October 28, 1886 to much fanfare. She was warmly welcomed by a crowd of one million New Yorkers. Since that day, she has been inspiring Americans both new and old to strive for the pursuit of liberty and justice for all.
Christ the Redeemer
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
With its 92-foot arm span reaching out over the surrounding Tijuca Forest National Park, Christ the Redeemer is one of South America’s most iconic landmarks. Its story began in 1921, when the Archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro proposed that a Christian monument be built on the summit of Corcovado Mountain, where it could be seen from anywhere in the Brazilian city.
The statue was designed by French sculptor Paul Landowski in the Art Deco style that was extremely popular at the time. It remains the largest Art Deco sculpture in the world. It was built between 1922 and 1931 by Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa in collaboration with French engineer Albert Caquot. Jesus’s face was created by Romanian sculptor Gheorghe Leonida. It was officially completed on October 12, 1931.
In addition to its obvious Christian symbolism, Christ the Redeemer quickly became a symbol for Rio de Janeiro and Brazil as a whole. The foundation stone of the statue was laid on April 4, 1922, before the design plans had been finalized, in order to commemorate the centennial of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. Christ the Redeemer serves as a point of cultural pride for Brazilians and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The Motherland Calls
A masterwork of Soviet-era art, The Motherland Calls is a powerful testament to resiliency. The statue sits on the summit of Mamayev Kurgan, a hill overlooking the city of Volgograd, Russia. It is the centerpiece of a larger memorial complex built to commemorate the World War II Battle of Stalingrad.
From August 1942 to February 1943, the city of Stalingrad became the site of one of the bloodiest and most grueling battles in the history of modern warfare. For months, Russian soldiers as well as everyday citizens held their ground against invading Nazi forces. As winter set in, the Russians were able to starve the Germans out. The victory at Stalingrad turned the tide of the war, forcing the Axis powers to go on the defensive and giving the Russian people a much-needed morale boost. The entire memorial complex at Volgograd, aptly titled “Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad”, honors the sacrifices and victories of those perilous 200 days.
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When construction of the monument was completed in 1967, The Motherland Calls was the tallest statue in the world. She has since been surpassed, but remains the tallest statue of a woman in the world. The statue depicts Russia personified. Wielding a 108-foot stainless steel sword, she calls on all Russians to never surrender, just like the brave citizens of Stalingrad.
Featured photo: Manoj Kumar Kasirajan / Unsplash