Figure 1: Polykritos. Winged Victory of Samothrace, ca. 190 BC.
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Atop the alabaster Daru staircase of the Louvre, a massive winged woman clad in sheets of billowing marble fabric stands erected upon a stone ship, filling the hall with her gusty presence. The room seems to stir with hushed chatter as museum visitors marvel at the finely carved depiction of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is a monument of the Hellenistic era; more precisely, it is a remarkable representation of pre-Renaissance realism that has influenced the artistic sphere for generations. The sense of vitality in the work has impassioned critics across nations and cultures. Comprehending the significance of this gorgeous, freestanding sculpture requires contextual connections to earlier Greek artistic movements and detailed examinations of other artworks.
The Winged Victory of Samothrace has an extensive yet fragmented history. It is presumed to be the magnum opus of Polykritos of Rhodes, an ambiguous figure of the 2nd-century BCE. The sculpture captures the bold goddess Nike in white Parian marble standing atop a grey marble prow of a ship. The Winged Victory was excavated on the corner of Samothrace, a small island north of Athens in the Aegean Sea, in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. There, it was commissioned as a testimonial for a local naval victory, but was damaged during an earthquake. The Sanctuary lay largely unperturbed for centuries until the audacious French diplomat Charles Champoiseau discovered the remnants of Nike and sent the parts to Paris in 1863 for study. The sculpture was gradually recovered, although the head and arms remain missing. In 1884, the Louvre decided to display the reconstructed 2.75-meter high goddess; it was placed in the southern stairway where it has resided for over a century. As declared by Sarah Grand in her novel Winged Victory, the sculpture has become “the most precious treasure of Art in the collection at the Louvre, second to none”.
Stylistically, the Hellenistic period is known as a departure from the idealistic, sublime art of the Classical Age to a movement of naturalism. For instance, the renowned sculpture Doryphorus by Polykleitos depicts a healthy, masculine athlete who was once holding a spear—the sculptural detail in the warrior is extremely evident of the Classical attention to proportion. The original statue has now been lost and only Roman replicas remain, but the central Classical value remains the same: idealization of the human body. There are strict mathematics used to portray the symmetrical qualities of the athletic build; this idea of the unspoiled human would return in the Italian Renaissance, most evident in Michelangelo’s unrealistically sized David. Unlike the Classical value of perfection in the David’s exaggerated physique, the Winged Victory of Samothrace is based on realistic flaws. As Greece transitioned into the Hellenistic era, secular artworks began to portray people of all ages and backgrounds. Changes in the artistic mode of thought from Classical idealization to Hellenistic realism were pivotal in the conception of the Winged Victory.
The Winged Victory also portrays the Hellenistic tendency toward intense, emotional subject matters. This affinity for dramatics is reminiscent of the later 1800s Romantic Era. Within the sculpture, Nike’s twisted torso evokes a sense of tension and strain in the sculpture as the goddess confronts the wind. The misalignment of the body disagreed with the Classical obsession with contrapposto. The statue’s wings are spread in a daunting gesture of triumph only to be sieged by a relentless gale; this motif of struggling against the wind presents conflict to the viewer. Furthermore, there is a definite juxtaposition of sheer, transparent sheets against creased textiles—sections of the marble are carved so expertly that there is an illusion of bare skin cast upon the sculpture. The impression of translucent fabric is evidenced on her stomach and left leg, where a sea salt spray has dampened her robes and glossed them across her body. An even greater contrast is observed in the overlapping shadows of the piece. Shadows created by ridges in the chiffon of The Winged Victory give the goddess a sense of dimension. They accentuate her shape and the disorganization of fabric. This idea of conflict anchors Nike to the mortal world; just like humans, she is subject to the elements of a coastal gale, and therefore, the toils of plebeian life.
There is one unarguable fact concerning The Winged Victory of Samothrace: the dynamic motion within the sculpture is the most identifiable characteristic of the piece. The tumultuous folds of the chiffon pull against Nike’s body as if they were alive. There are distinct pieces and layers of clothing that behave differently in the squall. One piece of fabric is caught around her right hip, held against her body by the sheer force of the wind. Her right leg is bent as she takes a determined step forward, while her left leg is left behind, giving the appearance of progression. Every angle, carving, and shadow is deliberately placed in order to enliven the artwork. Looking at the statue, it is easy to envision the goddess striding forth onto the precipice of the stone ship’s prow; with an outstretched hand, she shouts across the Aegean Sea, declaring victory for a weathered Greek hero as her cloak surges and swells endlessly. Through the breadth of the chiseled details, the Winged Victory of Samothrace communicates a tempest of vigor and action unmatched by any past artwork.
Figure 4: Abel Lafleur. Jules Rimet trophy, ca. 1930.
Even today, the Winged Victory has been repurposed in different mediums, cultures, and locations. For example, the first FIFA World Cup trophy was directly inspired by the goddess Nike. The soccer association commissioned Abel Lafleur to design the prize; gathering inspiration from the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Lafleur produced a beautiful gilded trophy featuring a woman with her wings supporting an octagonal dish. The same head-high stature is observed in the trophy as well as the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Subsequently, Nike became an athletic muse for the world. In addition, a myriad of institutions have funded full-scale reproductions of the work, finding artistic and symbolic value within the sculpture. One such institution, Ohio State University, funded a $23,000 replica to be placed in one of the campus libraries. An alumni student later commented that the figure “elicited awe, power, and a sense of immortality”. It is clear that the undying perseverance portrayed in the Hellenistic piece is appreciated worldwide to this day.
In the words of H.W. Janson, an acclaimed American professor of art history, the Winged Victory of Samothrace was “the greatest masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture”. The Greek Classical belief in idealism was revolutionized into an artistic movement of realism featuring common life and authentic conflict. The theatrics in the folds of Nike’s robes are not only exceptional in their craftsmanship, but their vibrancy, and viewing the grandiose sculpture leaves many winded. Through its stirring mastery, The Winged Victory of Samothrace has become one of the most celebrated artworks in the creative realm. Visiting the sculpture in its current French habitation is most certainly worthwhile. If you watch closely, undeterred by the billows of phantom wind that whirl through the hall, then you may witness Nike’s defiant wings quiver of her rippling clothes swell to life, just as the Greeks had done countless lifetimes prior.
This article was originally drafted as a submission to The Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize international contest. The 2016 theme was “The Importance of Art.” More information about the contest here.
Ling is an editor for The Millennial Times.