Sculpture has been rather neglected in the deskarati collection of great artistic works, so the Nike of Samothrake (1) is presented to you. It is a piece of classical Greek statuary, from the Second Century BC and is justly famous and admired. It has been described as “the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture” by the Russian-born American art historian, H W Janson, who wrote a definitive work entitled “The History of Art”.
NIKE OF SAMOTHRAKE, (ny kee, sam oe thray kee)
Nike is the Greek Goddess of Victory, hence the use of the name for sportswear. Samothrake is the Greek island where the statue was discovered in 1863. The eight-foot high (2.44 m) statue was carved from Parian marble, it is believed, at some time in the decade 200 – 190 BC, by the sculptor, Pythokritos of Lindos. In 1884, the sculpture was transferred to Paris, to be displayed in the Louvre, a world-famous art gallery and museum. It stands impressively at the head of the Daru marble staircase (2).
History of the Nikes
The artistic and symbolic representation of Victory as a woman in flowing draperies goes back for several centuries before the 2nd Century BC Nike of Samothrake. The bas relief panel of Victory removing her sandals, (3), now in the Acropolis Museum, Athens, is a fragment from the parapet of Athene Nike, dated to the 5th century BC.
The Nike statue from the Parthenon, Athens, (4) is dated to 440-417 BC, and is an excellent example of the rippling, flowing garments of the typical Nike format.
Which Naval Victory?
The Nike of Samothrake has been the subject of several archaeological investigations since it was first discovered in 1863. It is thought to commemorate a specific naval victory rather than Victory in the abstract. The statue may have occupied a niche above a theatre and accompanied an altar dedicated to Demetrios I Poliorchetes (337-283 BC). Demetrios was a highly successful military leader, both on land and sea. His title, Poliorchetes means “besieger of cities” and his naval victories were recalled by a large monument, of which the Nike of Samothrake may well have been an important part. King Demetrios was the son of King Antigonus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. Alfred Duggan wrote a short historical novel, (5) “Elephants and Castles”, on the life of Demetrios Poliorchetes.
It is possible that the Nike of Samothrake specifically commemorates the naval battle of Salamis, in 306 BC, which took place in the Bay of Salamis, on the eastern coast of Cyprus. This was a dynastic struggle between Antigonus, and Ptolemy, two generals and successors of Alexander the Great. The fleet of Ptolemy, from his power-base in Egypt, was heavily defeated by the fleet of Demetrios, the son of Antigonus. His coins (6) bore the Greek inscription, ΔHMHTPIOY BAZIΛEΩZ (DEMETRIOU BASILEOS) “Lord or King Demetrios”
(This naval engagement should not be confused with a more famous Battle of Salamis, in 480 BC, when an invading force of Persian ships was heavily defeated by a largely Athenian Greek fleet. There was, at the same time, a famous land battle at the Pass of Thermopylae. Not only was the first Salamis battle 174 years before the second one, but it took place 640 miles (1624 Km) further west of Cyprus, in the Gulf of Corinth, not far from the city of Athens (see map 9). The reason for the two identical names of Salamis is because a Greek from the island of Salamis, near Athens, was banished by the ruler, his father. He went to live in Cyprus and founded a colony which he gave the name of his home island.)
As the base of the statue includes a fragmentary inscription, “ΡOΔIOΖ” (RODIOS), some commentators believe it may commemorate a naval victory by the fleet of the Greek island we call by the anglicised name “Rhodes”. At one time the Rhodian fleet was, perhaps, the most powerful in the Aegean Sea, and this could suggest an earlier date of about 288 BC for the statue, compared with the more generally accepted, 200 – 190 BC. The Rhodian connection led to the sculptor being identified as Pythokritos of Lindos, a native of Rhodes (see map 9). However, the precise date and political associations of the Nike of Samothrake are still a matter of academic debate among archaeologists and classical historians.
Reconstructions of the Samothrake
The flowing, rippling draperies of the Nike may represent the descent of the Goddess through the strong sea winds to alight on the prow of the victorious ship. Some commentators believe that the Nike’s missing right arm would have been raised, so her hand cupped her mouth in a shout of “Victory”. Many reproductions or copies of this statue have been made, from full-size museum replicas, to small-scale versions, for sale to the general public. (I have one on my mantelpiece at home, made by a potter in Cyprus, and brought back from a holiday there.)
Also there have been many attempts to “complete” or “finish off” the badly damaged statue by adding arms and a head. A plain monochrome version (7) by “Saber Point” is shown below, carrying a victor’s laurel wreath, and with her bosom decently covered.
It is worth remembering that most Classical Greek statues, which we admire for the purity of their white marble, were originally painted in polychrome all over, so the gaudily-coloured version, (8) may not be wide of the mark. It is described as “Nike Paionios C”, and has the left leg and left breast bare, which is a rather free interpretation of the original. Neither (7) nor (8) have the hand cupped to the mouth for a shout of victory.
This essay mentions a number of locations in the eastern Mediterranean Sea which are shown on the map below (9). The area is complex geographically, and full of small islands which are mostly omitted from the map. The scale is too large to show much detail, and a separate map (10) shows the oval-shaped island of Samothrake, dominated by Mount Fengari at 5, 285 feet (1611 m).
Teenagers have become familiar with Nike, a popular brand of footwear, and are happy to accept that it is a two-syllable word, ny kee, rather than a one- syllable word to rhyme with “bike”. In the same way, Samothrake is pronounced sam o thray kee so the final e is also sounded. It is a pity that a common English transliteration of the Greek is given as “Samothrace”, which invites people to end the name in “ace” rather than ay kee.
The Greek alphabet does not correspond exactly to our roman alphabet, so there is some academic debate about exactly how to transliterate between the two. The Greek spelling of Samothrake is Σαμοθράκη so we have Σ (S), α(a), μ(m), ο(o), θ(th), ρ(r), ά(a), κ(k), η(ee). There are two symbols for e in Greek, epsilon, short e as in “get”, and η eta, long e as in “eve”. Quite clearly the ending is hard k, and long ee.
In conclusion, here is a comment on the Nike of Samothrake from a professional artist, David Gentleman in his book on Paris (Reference C).
“The Musee du Louvre
The Louvre is part palace, part museum, part endurance test: a perplexing mixture of conflicting experiences.
I suppose that, imagining beforehand a visit to a great museum, one thinks it will offer one-to-one confrontations with works of art, as if looking at reproductions in a catalogue. But of course it is a much richer experience: in two ways.
To begin with, photographs can’t give one any real idea of the movement and swirl of the Winged Victory, of the way in which every least touch of the sculptor’s hand is intent on suggesting both solid shape and springing movement, so that one can almost feel the air which presses and tugs the drapery against the flesh. I’d never properly noticed this until I tried to draw it: it’s odd how powerfully the impression can still survive after so many centuries.
Secondly, the Winged Victory wasn’t originally meant to be an isolated treasure, an ikon, a masterpiece: it was just a job to be done well and a thing to be seen.
The people looking up at it from the great staircase in the Louvre, appraising, awestruck, mystified, fed-up or simply worn-out, made me feel that it’s better to see a work of art being responded to, however distractingly, than to study it in sanctified but sterile isolation.”
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
I have made use of two reference works, and a useful wikipedia article, “The Nike of Samothrace”
A. “The Larousse Encyclopedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art”, editor René Huyghe, Hamlyn, 1962
B. “Elephants and Castles”, by Alfred Duggan, Faber, 1963
C. “David Gentleman’s Paris” Hodder and Stoughton, 1991
1 Front view of the Nike of Samothrake (google image)
2 The Louvre staircase with the Nike at its head (google image)
3 Nike removing her sandals 5C BC (Huyghe, op. cit)
4 Nike from the East pediment of the Parthenon, Athens (Huyghe, op. cit)
5 Paperback version of a biographical novel on Demetrios I Poliorchetes (Personal copy)
6 Demetrios Poliorchetes marble bust above and coin portrait below (google image)
7 A reconstruction of the Nike of Samothrake (Saber Point)
8 Polychrome reconstruction of the Nike of Samothrake (Nike Paionios C)
9 Sites in the eastern Mediterranean Sea (Author)
10 The island of Samothrake, and Mount Fengari (google images)
11. David Gentleman’s illustration of the Nike of Samothrake in the Louvre, Paris (Reference C)