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Work Winged Victory of Samothrace

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

The Winged Victory of Samothrace

© 2006 Musée du Louvre / Daniel Lebée et Carine Deambrosis

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The winged goddess of Victory standing on the prow of a ship overlooked the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace. This monument was probably an ex-voto offered by the people of Rhodes in commemoration of a naval victory in the early second century BC. The theatrical stance, vigorous movement, and billowing drapery of this Hellenistic sculpture are combined with references to the Classical period-prefiguring the baroque aestheticism of the Pergamene sculptors.

A presentation mixing grandeur and theatricality

This exceptional monument was unearthed in 1863 on the small island of Samothrace in the northwest Aegean. It was discovered by Charles Champoiseau, French Vice-Consul to Adrianople (Turkey). The goddess of Victory (Nike, in Greek) is shown in the form of a winged woman standing on the prow of a ship, braced against the strong wind blowing through her garments. With her right hand cupped around her mouth, she announced the event she was dedicated to commemorate. The colossal work was placed in a rock niche that had been dug into a hill; it overlooked the theater of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. This niche may also have contained a pool filled with water in which the ship appeared to float. Given its placement, the work was meant to be viewed from the front left-hand side; this explains the disparity in sculpting technique, the right side of the body being much less detailed. The highly theatrical presentation-combined with the goddess's monumentality, wide wingspan, and the vigor of her forward-thrusting body-reinforces the reality of the scene.

A commemorative Rhodian monument

The sanctuary at Samothrace was consecrated to the Cabeiri, gods of fertility whose help was invoked to protect seafarers and to grant victory in war. The offering of a statue of Nike perched on a ship was a religious act in honor of these gods. It has also been suggested that this monument was dedicated by the Rhodians in commemoration of a specific naval victory. The type of ship depicted and the grey marble used for the prow and base of the statue both suggest that this is indeed a Rhodian creation. If it is associated with a major Rhodian naval victory, the work can be dated to the second century BC-it would have been erected in honor of the battle of Myonnisos, or perhaps the Rhodian victory at Side in 190 BC against the fleet of Antiochus III of Syria.

A Hellenistic work steeped in tradition

The Winged Victory of Samothrace is one of the masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture. The figure creates a spiraling effect in a composition that opens out in various directions. This is achieved by the oblique angles of the wings and the placement of the left leg, and emphasized by the clothing blowing between the goddess's legs. The nude female body is revealed by the transparency of the wet drapery, much in the manner of classical works from the fifth century BC, while the cord worn just beneath the breasts recalls a clothing style that was popular beginning in the fourth century. In the treatment of the tunic-sometimes brushing against the body, sometimes billowing in the wind-the sculptor has been remarkably skillful in creating visual effects. The decorative richness, sense of volume, and intensity of movement are characteristic of a Rhodian style that prefigures the baroque creations of the Pergamene school (180-160 BC).

Bibliography

B. Sismondo-Ridgway, Hellenistic Sculpture, II, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2000, p. 150-160
M. Hamiaux, "La Victoire de Samothrace", Feuillet pédagogique du Musée du Louvre, 3, n 43, Paris, 1999
M. Hamiaux, Les sculptures grecques, II, Paris, 1998, p. 27-32, n 2
B. Holtzmann & A. Pasquier, L'Art grec, Manuels de l'Ecole du Louvre, Paris, 1998, p. 258-259
H. Knell, Die Nike von Samothrake, Darmstadt, 1995
Fr. Haskell (Fr.) & N. Penny, Pour l'Amour de l'art antique : la statuaire gréco-romaine et le goût européen 1500-1900, Paris, 1988, p. 368, n 180 (ed. anglaise, Taste and the antique : the lure of classical sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven, 1981)
H. Thiersch, "Die Nike von Samothrake : ein rhodisches Werk und Anathem", Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Philologisch-Historische Klasse, 1931, p. 337-356

Technical description

  • The Winged Victory of Samothrace

    C. 190 BC

    Provenance: Island of Samothrace (northern Aegean)

  • Grey Lartos marble (boat); Parian marble (statue)

    H. 3.28 m

  • Charles Champoiseau expeditions, 1863 and 1879

    Ma 2369

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Victory of Samothrace staircase
    Escalier Daru

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