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winged victory of samothrace

Artists: Hagesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus
Material: Grey and white Thasian and Parian marble
Date: 2nd century BC
Dimensions: 244 cm in height (total height with ship base: 500 cm)
Period: Hellenistic Period, Ancient Greece
Discovery: 1863 by Charles Champoiseau, in the Island of Samothrace, Greece
Current Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Theme: Victory
Subject: Goddess Nike, Greek Mythology

sculpture summary

A commemorative Rhodian monument from the 2nd century BC, originally from the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, in the island of Samothrace, Greece, the Winged Victory of Samothrace is the most praised sculpture from the Hellenistic period. Depicting the goddess Nike, it is the embodiment not only of victory and triumph, but also of beauty and strength. Today, this masterpiece is on display at the Louvre Museum, where it stands very prominently, as it is considered to be one of the most precious works of art in the museum’s possession. It is truly an invaluable testimony to the understanding and development of art history.

general description

Also called the Nike of Samothrace, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, is an iconic sculpture in an Hellenistic style which depicts the Goddess Nike. It was found in the island of Samothrace, after which she is named, and represents the Goddess flowing onto the prow of a ship, with sheer drapery being blown by the wind, caught in a motion that seems to be suspended in mid air. It is a theatrical pose, filled with movement, drama and beauty, which was greatly of the Hellenistic period, combined with characteristics of the classical period. It is estimated that the unique sculpture was created in the 2nd century BC (based on the dating of the Hellenistic style). Created in grey and white Thasian and Parian marble (grey for the ship and white for the goddess) the work has a total height of five meters, being that the figure of the Goddess itself has exactly  244 centimetres in height and the remaining height is given by the structure of the ship. There is no evidence of a commission, or of the purpose of the work, however, inscribed at the base is the word “Rhodios” (Rhodian), suggesting the celebration a naval victory by Rhodes (an island of the Aegean which was known for its maritime force); this fact could date the sculpture more specifically to 288 BC. The work was placed at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, a monument offered by the people of Rhodes in commemoration of a naval victory. The sculpture, which is currently located at the Louvre Museum, was found in pieces that have been reassembled, however, the head and the arms have never been located, and she still remains incomplete. The right wing isn’t original, and is a symmetrical copy in plaster of the original one (mirroring technique), and a hand that has been found is placed next to the sculpture at the Louvre. Despite these incompletions, the real essence of the work will always remain a mystery, as most of the facts surrounding the work, as well as her fundamental features, will never be known.

Left side view

Nike was the Greek Goddess of Victory, and was a personification of Victory. In Greek Mythology, Nike was the daughter of the titan Pallas and the Goddess Styx. Her siblings are other personifications, including Kratos (personification of strength), Zelus (personification of dedication) and Bia (personifications of force and anger). Both Nike and her siblings were all close companions of Zeus, the fundamental God of the Ancient Greek pantheon. The winged Goddess Nike was evoked as a means of celebration, and was believed to be a personification of Victory itself, embodying triumph, beauty and strength. Legend claimed that she was able to run and fly at great speeds, which is one of the reasons why is always depicted with large wings. She acted as a messenger (angelos in Greek), spreading news of victory either in competitions or in battles. Sometimes she was depicted with a trumpet, as a symbol of her message, and was often treated as a bringer of good luck, Nike was very commonly depicted in Ancient Greece, in both public spaces and in temples, and was sometimes depicted in a miniature form in the hand of Athena and Zeus.

Nike of Delfos (c. 550 BC), at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (the earliest known stone free-standing statue of Nike, found on Delfos) (CC BY-SA 4.0, by George E. Koronaios)

Bronze Nike striding forwards (c. 500 BC), made in Taranto, Italy (CC BY-SA 2.0, by Carole Raddato)

Votive offering Relief with Charioteer Nike (c. 420 BC), from Athens, Greece

Roman copy of an Hellenistic original of Nike libation Apollo (100-75 BC), at the Louvre Museum

Depiction of Nike (27 BC – 4th century AD, Roman Imperial Period), at the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, in Turkey

This Goddess of Victory, was most likely created as a celebration of a naval battle, of the Victory of the people Rhodes, which were great navigators and had recurrently fought off Alexander the Great’s successors fights/battles for control over the Aegean Sea. It was placed at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, which featured a cluster of buildings, various sea-inspired monuments and was famed throughout all of Antiquity. In such a context, the Winged Nike reminded the people and the many pilgrims that travelled to the sanctuary that the people of Rhodes were under divine protection. In Ancient Greece, there was the popular belief that the Gods protected sailors, and favored naval victories. It is unknown if this particular work was an offering from one of the Macedonian kings. If so, the offering of the sculpture itself can also be seen as a religious devotional act in honor of the gods. Some popular theories speculate that it was a celebration of the Battle of Salamis in 306 BC or the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Hermann Thiersch and Karl Lehmann proposed that, as a Rhodian celebrative monument, it was carved by the notorious Rhodian sculptor Pythocritus. Furthermore, modern excavations suggest that the Victory occupied a niche above a theater space, which was part of the larger temple complex dedicated to the gods.

Sanctuary of the Great Gods in the Island of Samothrace (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Ggia)

Tetradrachm of Demetrios Poliorcète (A depiction of what was believed to be the sculpture (left coin), with the Goddess holding a trumpet. (CC BY-SA 3.0, by cgb.fr)

The work was discovered in fragments in 1863, on the island of Samothrace (north of the Aegean Sea), after which she was named, by the amateur archeologist (who was also the French vice-consul to Adrianopolis) Charles Champoiseau (1830–1909). Champoiseau had been conducting research throughout the Mediterranean region, and made the discovery while exploring the sanctuary of the Great Gods. At the time of the excavations, Champoiseau didn’t think that the grey marble blocks were part of the work and disregarded them completely, leaving them at the site. Having sent what he had found to Paris, the work was then reassembled in progressive stages.  It was only later, in 1875, that new expeditions added elements to the sculpture, specially the grey marbled prow of the ship, which were added in the expeditions led by the German archaeologist Alexander Conze (1831-1914). Excavations of the site continued in 1950’s and in 1960’s, during which the palm of the hand was discovered, and it is now located at the museum near the sculpture. The open hand instantly disproved theories that believed the figure was grasping an object (a trumpet or fillet); rather, the hand suggests a gesture of greeting. However, her head and arms remain lost. It is generally accepted by some archeologists that there are still various fragments of the work on the site, still undiscovered.

Charles Champoiseau

The sculpture being placed at the Louvre staircases, 1939

The Hand of the Winged Victory

The Winged Victory is one of the most celebrated sculptures in the world, and one of the most popular works of art of collective global culture. It has been located at the Louvre Museum since 1884, and still has a very prominent position at the top of the Daru staircases, where its presence is rarely overlooked. H. W. Janson described the work as “the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture”, a label which is largely and commonly accepted. The fact that the work is one of a small number of works of  which survive in its original Hellenistic form (rather than through Roman copies), greatly adds to its importance. It is also considered as one of the most notorious masterpieces from the Ancient Greek, Roman and Greco-Roman era. Generally considered by the Louvre as one of its greatest treasures, its contribution to the understanding and development of art history is invaluable.

Daru Staircase, at the Louvre Museum

aesthetic analysis

This Hellenistic sculpture combines Hellenistic principles with references to the Classical period. The theatrical pose, the captured movement enhanced by the flowing drapery, all characterize the Hellenistic ideals. The Hellenistic period, begun after the death of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), is greatly characterized by its movement, drama, and narrative poses that capture specific moments in time, of which this sculpture is a great example. In fact, the mastery of form and movement has impressed critics and artists since the moment of its discovery. Similar aspects can be found in the Laocoon (40-20 BC) sculpture, which also depicts a violent motion captured in a single moment frozen in time. The naturalistic anatomy which pierces through the garments seems to be an Hellesnistic novelty, which created a greater depiction of movement. The nude body is emphasized by the clothing and drapery, which echoes classical works of the century before, and the cord which attached the clothing echoes a style of the 4th century. The intensity of movement is seen to be particularly characteristic of Rhodian style. There are many references and connections that can be created with various works of the time, each defining or echoing different aspects of either a more classical or a more hellenistic approach.  References and resemblances can be established with the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon (c. 200 – 150 BC), which is also Hellenistic and dates roughly the same time – in one of its scenes, in this case, Nike is depicted sided with Athena. The clinging drapery rolling on the skin of the body can also be compared to the sculptures created by Phideas for the Parthenon (447-432 BC), where the female form is greatly accentuated by the drapery.

Laocoon and His Sons (40-20 BC)

Parthenon Sculptures (447-432 BC) by Phideas (CC BY 2.5, by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

The composition uses a spiraling effect, opening up in various directions, creating a highly theatrical presence and a great sense of volume. This is achieved by the unique use of oblique angles across the figure in various places. There is a profound sense of energy, drama, movement and power, evoked by these twisting and contorting lines. This dynamic movement seems to suggest that the figure is both firmly grounded on the ship and taking flight at the same time, with the strong wind that flutters through her clothing. She is posing in an asymmetrical position, which has come to be known as contrapposto (a pose which implies movement through the use of an ‘s’ curve motion of the body); this contrapposto pose is also found in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) David (1501-1504). The wide wingspan, and the monumentality of the work is still balanced by the delicacy of the work, which greatly derives from the delicacy of the compositional structure, which all reinforces a sense of gravity and reality, and, at the same time, echoing more intangible ideas. Without strong diagonals, shifting and spiraling against each other, the vigor of her forward pulsating body wouldn’t be possible. Some believe that her right hand is cupped around her mouth, as she announced victory (another indication of movement), however, no parts of the sculpture have been found to validate this theory. Furthermore, the base in the form of a  prow of a battleship embodies the new developments in naval architecture, as it incorporates/depicts various oar boxes, which are well preserved, and act as a testament to the naval capacities of the time.

Contrapposto ‘S’ curvature

The sculpture is considered to be magnificent in its artisanship, epitomizing the development and the perfecting of the craft for centuries. Rather typical for the time, it consisted of using several blocks of marble, carved separately and then assembled together. In the Hellenistic period, specifically, it began to be used for all the sculpture, as was applied in this work, rather than only using it for protruding members as was done in the classical period. The arms, wings, feet and various pieces of drapery were all carved individually and then reassembled. The wings, especially, were notorious engineering feet. The base was made out of 23 individual blocks, joining six slabs with metal pins, which all balance itself in weights creating a static solid structural force. The work was meant to be viewed from the front left-hand side, which explains the differences in sculpting techniques, being that the right side of the body is less detailed. Overall, it is a testament to the vast technical abilities of the Hellenistic sculptors, in many different ways, at both a micro or a macro scale.

Wing and metallic frame

The Greeks have a long tradition of incorporating concepts such as Peace or Justice into aesthetic creations, usually female figures. This sculpture is one of these examples, acting as an allegory of Victory, as did the Nike goddess, although initially, in Classic times, no sculptures were exclusively dedicated to her. Not only an allegory of victory, she is also an embodiment of femininity, power, strength, and lightness. The Parian marble used on the goddess makes it seem as if she has a pinkish tone, whereas the ship uses another marble and has a deeper and darker tone of greys. This creates a contrast between the two materials, and grants the goddess with a lighter presence, making her seem lighter than she actually is, and evoking the sense/meaning of flying. Another fundamental aspect is the fact that the goddess seems to allow for the creation of space around her, meaning that she encapsulates space with her wings, ship and pose. Rather than being static, the statue itself seems to hold much more space than the volume of the figure really creates. Recreating wind itself, the figure has more presence than initially seems. The play between space and statue was a strategy later used by Baroque sculptures and in some of the sculptures of the Renaissance. The combination of a violent motion and a sudden stillness in the same moment, adds great significance to the work, as the combination of these two opposites is of great difficulty to embody and recreate. It is the portrayal of a triumphant spirit; a moment when man is a witness to that which is divine. Mixing grandeur and theatricality with intimacy given by the pose of the sculpture and nudity (through the transparency of the garments), it combines plenty of polar opposites.

The two colors of the marble

A Faun Teased by Children (1616, Baroque) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Although Nike figures are quite common at the time, the Winged Victory has various innovative aspects. The tension between the lower part and the upper half, makes it look like she is landing on the ship. The torso pushes up and twists in a different direction than the legs, making it seem as if, on the one hand, she is landing on the ship, on the other, she is half caught in motion, with her body still pulling upwards. The sense of naturalism is also a great innovation of the time, depicting motion and a realistic approach to the human form, rather than an idealised version, as it was common in the Classical period. The structure of the wings is very much debated, as it neither represents the wings of birds nor wings typically reproduced at the time.

As the expression of various centuries of the development of aesthetic skills, numerous parallels can be announced with various sculptures of the same period. Specifically, there are numerous parallels with the figures and the drapery from the Pergamon Altar (c. 170 BC), which in a similar manner (as explained above) echoes the principles of Hellenistic sculptures especially in the evocation of movement. Besides the parallels with its time, the sculpture became a cultural icon, acting as a major influence on numerous artists from the time of its discovery until the present day. Indirectly, it is also necessary to announce the numerous sculptures of the Renaissance, which although were not influenced directly by this sculpture (still undiscovered at the time), they were profoundly influenced by classical sculpture and by the Hellenistic style. As a main reference, it is essential to announce the works of Michelangelo (1475-1564), who was greatly influenced by all classical approaches, visible in both his sculptures and his paintings’ compositions. The contrapposto pose, for example, is used in David (1501-1504). Another vital indirect association can be drawn between Nike (the figure of Victory) and Angels which emerged in Christian iconography centuries later. In Early Christian depictions, angels were winged messengers who announced God’s will to mankind, adopting the use of  female clothes in the late medieval period. Since there was a great artistic tendency during the fifteenth century for classical works (using them as models), the resemblances between angels and the Victories are very clear. Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) Annunciation (c. 1485) is a rather good example of this.

Altar of Zeus, Pergamon (c. 200 – 150 BC)

David (1501-1504) by Michelangelo

The Annunciation (c. 1485), by Sandro Botticelli

There are numerous derivative works. A notorious allusion is found in the hands of Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921), in his painting entitled A Virgin (1892–1893). The Futurists found in the work and its ‘creation of movement’ a  great source of inspiration, using it as a reference while criticizing it, at the same time. In the Futurist manifesto published in 1909, Marinetti (1876-1944) claims “a race-automobile which seems to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the ‘Victory of Samothrace”, using the sculpture as an archetype of classical sources that needed to be let go of. In a similar manner, the work of Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) entitled Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) is said to have been derived from the work. Another example is found in the work of Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) who appropriated it in Double Nike de Samothrace (1973). The sculpture has also been referenced by Yves Klein (1928-1962) in 1962 and in 2006 by Bansky (1973-).

A Virgin (1892-1893), by Abbott Handerson Thayer

‘Victoire de Samothrace’
Louvre Museum (website)

Greek Sculpture
By Mark D. Fullerton (2016)

Sculpture: From antiquity to the present
By Georges Duby and Jean-Luc Daval (2015)

The elements of sculpture: a viewer’s guide
By Herbert George (2014)

History of Art
By H. W. Janson (1995)

SCULPTURE images

related works

Discovery: Relief from the temple of Athena Nike
Title: Nike adjusting her sandal

Date: c. 420-410 BC
Medium: Marble
Location: Acropolis Museum, Athens
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 2.5, Marsyas

Discovery: Delfos, Greece
Title: Nike of Delfos
Date: c. 550 BC
Medium: Marble
Location: National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by George E. Koronaios

Discovery: Nola, Campania, Italy
Title: Amphora with Nike pouring a libation to Lykaon
Date: c. 440 BC
Medium: Ceramic
Location: British Museum, London

Artist: Nikodemos potter
Title: Prize Vessel from the Panathenaic Athenian Games(Nike and the contest judge)
Date: 363-362 BC
Medium: Ceramic
Location: Getty Villa, California, USA
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 2.0, by Dave & Margie Hill / Kleerup

Title: Attic red-figure amphora depicting Nike preparing a bull for sacrifice
Date: unknown
Medium: Ceramic
Dimensions: unknown
Location: Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 2.0, by Carole Raddato

Title: Goddess Nike
Date: 27 BC – 4th century AD, Roman Imperial Period
Medium: Marble
Location: Ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, Turkey

Title: Roman copy of an Hellenistic original of Nike libation Apollo
Date: 100-75 BC
Medium: Marble
Dimension: 46 x 47 x 8.5 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

Discovery: Athens, Greece
Title:
Votive offering Relief (with Charioteer Nike)

Date: c. 420 BC
Medium: Marble
Location: British Museum,London

Title: Nike striding forwards
Date: c. 500 BC
Medium: Bronze
Dimensions: 15.24 x 17 x 4 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 2.0, by Carole Raddato

Artist: Epigonus of Pergamon
Title: Dying Gaul
Date: 230-220 BC
Medium: Marble
Location: Capitoline Museums, Rome
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 3.0, by BeBo86

Discovery: Pergamon, Greece
Title: Pergamon Altar
Date: c. 180–160 BC
Medium: Marble
Location: Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Title: Roman copy of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus
Date: 2nd century BC
Medium: Marble
Dimensions: 169 x 89 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

Title: The Three Graces
Date: 2nd century BC
Medium: Marble
Dimensions: 119 x 85 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

Title: Copy of the Old Drunkard
Date: 2nd century BC
Medium: Marble
Location:Capitoline Museums, Rome

Discovery: Island of Melos (Cyclades, Greece)
Title: Venus de Milo

Date: c. 100 BC
Medium: Marble
Dimensions: (H) 202 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Livioandronico2013

Discovery: 1506, in Rome
Artists: Hagesander, Polydorus, and Athenodorus

Title: Laocoon and His Sons
Date: 40-20 BC
Medium: Greek Parian white marble
Dimensions: (H) 2 m
Location: Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Title: The Punishment of Dirce (known as The Farnese Bull)
Date: 2nd century BC
Medium: Mosaic
Location: National Archeological Museum, Naples
Image credits: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Vermip

Artist: Michelangelo
Title:
David

Date: 1501-1504
Medium: Marble
Dimensions: 517 x 199 cm
Location: Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence

Artist: Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Title:
A Faun Teased by Children

Date: 1616
Medium: Marble
Dimensions: (H) 132.4 cm
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Artist: Abbott Handerson Thayer
Title:
A Virgin
Date: 1892-1893
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 229.7 x 182.5 cm
Location: Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Title: 
The Annunciation

Date: c. 1485
Medium: Tempera and gold on wood
Dimensions: 19.1 x 31.4 cm
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York