Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace, or the Nike of Samothrace, is a votive monument originally found on the island of Samothrace, north of the Aegean Sea. It is a masterpiece of Greek sculpture from the Hellenistic era, dating from the beginning of the 2nd century BCE. It is composed of a statue representing the goddess Niké (Victory), whose head and arms are missing, and its base in the shape of a ship's bow. The total height of the monument is 5.57 meters including the socle; the statue alone measures 2.75 meters. The sculpture is one of a small number of major Hellenistic statues surviving in the original, rather than Roman copies. The complex has been exhibited at the Louvre Museum, at the top of the main staircase, since 1884.
Discovery and restorations
In the 19th century
In 1863, Charles Champoiseau (1830-1909), acting in charge of the Consulate of France in Adrianopolis (now Edirne in Turkey), undertook from March 6 to May 7 the exploration of the ruins of the sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace. On April 13, 1863, he discovered part of the bust and the body of a large female statue in white marble accompanied by numerous fragments of drapery and feathers. He recognised this as the goddess Niké, Victory, traditionally represented in Greek antiquity as a winged woman. In the same place was a jumble about fifteen large grey marble blocks whose form or function was unclear: he concluded it was a funerary monument. He decided to send the statue and fragments to the Louvre Museum, and to leave the large blocks of grey marble on site. Departing Samothrace at the beginning of May 1863, the statue arrived in Toulon at the end of August and in Paris on May 11, 1864.
1864-1866: a first restoration was undertaken by Adrien Prévost de Longpérier, then curator of Antiquities at the Louvre. The main part of the body (2.14 m, from the upper belly to the feet) is erected on a stone base, and largely completed by fragments of drapery, including the fold of himation that flares behind the legs on the Nike. The remaining fragments - the right part of the bust and a large part of the left wing - too incomplete to be placed on the statue, are stored. Given the exceptional quality of the sculpture, Longpérier decided to present the body alone, exhibited until 1880 among the Roman statues first in the Caryatid Room, then briefly in the Tiber Room.
1875: Austrian archaeologists who, under the direction of Alexander Conze, had been excavating the buildings of the Samothrace sanctuary since 1870, studied the location where Champoiseau had found the Victory. Architect Aloïs Hauser drew the grey marble blocks left on-site and apprehended that, once properly assembled, they form the tapered bow of a warship, and that, placed on a base of slabs, they served as the basis for the statue. Tetradrachmas of Demetrios Poliorcetes struck between 301 and 292 BCE. representing a Victory on the bow of a ship, wings outstretched, give a good idea of this type of monument. For his part, the specialist in ancient sculpture O. Benndorf is responsible for studying the body of the statue and the fragments kept in reserve at the Louvre, and restored the statue blowing into a trumpet that she raises with her right arm, as on the coin. The two men thus managed to make a model of the Samothrace monument as a whole.
1879: Champoiseau, informed of this research, undertook a second mission to Samothrace from August 15 to 29 for the sole purpose of sending the blocks of the base and the slabs of the Victory base to the Louvre. He abandoned on the island the largest block of the base, unsculpted. Two months later, the blocks reached the Louvre Museum, where in December an assembly test was carried out in a courtyard.
1880-1883: the curator of the Department of Antiquities, Félix Ravaisson-Mollien, then decided to reconstruct the monument, in accordance with the model of Austrian archaeologists. On the body of the statue, he restored the belt area in plaster, placed the right part of the marble bust, recreated the left part in plaster, attached the left marble wing with a metal frame, and replaced the entire right wing with a plaster model. But he did not reconstruct the head, arms or feet. The ship-shaped base is rebuilt and completed, except for the broken bow of the keel, and there is still a large void at the top aft. The statue was placed directly on the base. The entire monument was then placed from the front, on the upper landing of the Daru staircase, the main staircase of the museum.
1891: Champoiseau returned to Samothrace a third time to try to obtain the Victory's head, but without success. He does however bring back debris from the drapery and base, a small fragment with an inscription and fragments of coloured plaster.
In the 20th century
1934: the presentation of the Victory is modified as part of a general redevelopment of the Daru museum and staircase, whose steps are widened and redecorated. The monument is staged to constitute the crowning of the staircase: it is advanced on the landing to be more visible from the bottom of the steps, and the statue is enhanced on the base by a modern 45 cm high block of stone, supposed to evoke a combat bridge at the bow of the ship. This presentation remained unchanged until 2013.
1939-1945: at the declaration of the Second World War in September 1939, the Victory statue descended from its base to be evacuated and sheltered with the other masterpieces of the Louvre Museum. It remained at the Château de Valençay (Indre) until the Liberation, and regained its place at the top of the stairs without damage in July 1945.
1950: American excavators from New York University, under the direction of Karl Lehmann, resumed exploration of the sanctuary of the Great Gods in Samothrace in 1938. In July 1950, they associated Louvre curator Jean Charbonneaux with their work, who discovered the palm of the statue's right hand in the Victory site. Two fingers preserved at the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna since the Austrian excavations of 1875 were reattached to the palm. The palm and fingers were then deposited in the Louvre Museum, and displayed with the statue since 1954.
1996: two pieces of grey marble that were used to moor fishing boats on the beach below the sanctuary were retrieved and reassembled at the museum in 1952. These were studied in 1996 by Ira Mark and Marianne Hamiaux, who concluded that these pieces, jointed, constitute the block of the base abandoned by Champoiseau in 1879.
In the 21st century
2008-2014: the American team led by J. McCredie undertook the digitization of the entire sanctuary to allow its 3D reconstruction.
2013-2014: under the direction of B. D. Wescoat, resumption of the study of the Victory enclosure and the small basic fragments preserved in reserve began.
2013-2014: In Paris, the Louvre Museum undertook the restoration of the entire monument with two objectives: to clean all the dirty surfaces and improve the general presentation. The statue came down from its base to undergo scientific examination (UV, infrared, X-rays, microspectrography, marble analysis): traces of blue paint are detected on the wings and on a strip at the bottom of the mantle. The blocks of the base were disassembled one by one to be drawn and studied. The 19th-century restoration of the statue is preserved with a few details (thinning of the neck and attachment of the left arm), fragments preserved in reserve at the Louvre are added (feather at the top of the left wing, a fold at the back of the chitôn), the metal vice behind the left leg is removed. Castings of small joint fragments preserved in Samothrace are integrated into the base. A cast of the large ship block left in Samothrace was replaced by a metal base on a cylinder ensuring the proper balance of the statue. Once in place on the base, the colour contrast of the marbles of the two elements becomes obvious again. The whole is reassembled on a modern base, a little removed on the landing to facilitate the movement of visitors.
The statue, in white Parian marble, depicts a winged woman, the goddess of Victory (Nikè), alighting on the bow of a warship.
The Nike is dressed in a long tunic (chitôn) in a very fine fabric, with a folded flap and belted under the chest. It was attached to the shoulders by two thin straps (the restoration is not accurate). The lower body is partially covered by a thick mantle (himation) rolled up at the waist and untie when uncovering the entire left leg; one end slides between the legs to the ground, and the other, much shorter, flies freely in the back. The mantle is falling, and only the force of the wind holds it on her right leg. The sculptor has multiplied the effects of draperies, between places where the fabric is plated against the body by revealing its shapes, especially on the belly, and those where it accumulates in folds deeply hollowed out casting a strong shadow, as between the legs. This extreme virtuosity concerns the left side and front of the statue. On the right side, the layout of the drapery is reduced to the main lines of the clothes, in a much less elaborate work.
The goddess advances, leaning on her right leg. The two feet that were bare disappeared. The right touched the ground, the heel still slightly raised; the left foot, the leg strongly stretched back, was still carried in the air. The goddess is not walking, she was finishing her flight, her large wings still spread out backwards. The arms disappeared, but the right shoulder raised indicates that the right arm was raised to the side. With her elbow bent, the goddess made her hand a victorious gesture of salvation: this hand with outstretched fingers held nothing (neither trumpet nor crown). There is no clue to reconstructing the position of the left arm, probably lowered, very slightly bent; the goddess may have held a stylis (a naval standard) on this side, a kind of mast taken as a trophy on the enemy ship, as seen on coins. The statue is designed to be seen three quarters left (right for the spectator), from where the lines of the composition are very clear: a vertical from the neck to the right foot, and an oblique starting from the neck diagonally along the left leg. "The whole body is inscribed in a rectangular triangle, a simple but very solid geometric figure: it was necessary to support both the fulfilled shapes of the goddess, the accumulation of draperies, and the energy of movement". Most recently the Alula feather was restored to the left wing in a flared position, as it would be for a bird landing.
The art historian H. W. Janson has pointed out that unlike earlier Greek or Near Eastern sculptures, the Nike creates a deliberate relationship to the imaginary space around the goddess. The wind that has carried her and which she is fighting off, straining to keep steady – as mentioned the original mounting had her standing on a ship's prow, just having landed – is the invisible complement of the figure and the viewer is made to imagine it. At the same time, this expanded space heightens the symbolic force of the work; the wind and the sea are suggested as metaphors of struggle, destiny and divine help or grace. This kind of interplay between a statue and the space conjured up would become a common device in baroque and romantic art, about two thousand years later. It is present in Michelangelo's sculpture of David: David's gaze and pose shows where he is seeing his adversary Goliath and his awareness of the moment – but it is rare in ancient art.
The boat and the base
These are carved from grey marble veined with white, identified as that of the quarries of Lartos, in Rhodes. The base has the shape of the bow of a Greek Hellenistic warship: long and narrow, it is covered at the front by a combat deck on which the statue is located. It has reinforced, projecting oars boxes on the sides that supported two rows of staggered oars (the oval oar slots are also are depicted). The keel is rounded. At the bottom of the bow, at the waterline, was represented the large triple-pronged spur and a little higher up a smaller two-bladed ram: that would have been used to smash the hull of the enemy ship. The top of the bow was crowned by a high and curved bow ornament (the acrostolion). These missing elements have not been reconstructed, which greatly reduces the vessel's warlike appearance.
Epigraphist Ch. Blinkenberg thought that this bow was that of a trihēmiolia, a type of warship often named in Rhodes inscriptions: the island's shipyards were renowned, and its war fleet important. But specialists in ancient naval architecture do not agree on the ascription of the trihemolia. It can only be said that the Samothrace bow has boxes of oars and two benches of superimposed oars. Each oar being operated by several rowers, this can also be suitable for a Quadrireme (4 files of rowers) or a Quinquereme (5 files of rowers). These ships were widespread in all Hellenistic war fleets, including the Rhodian fleet.
Dimensions and construction of the set
Total height: 5.57 m
Statue: H: 2.75 m with wings; 2.40 m body without head
Ship: H: 2.01 m; L: 4.29 m; W max.: 2.48 m
Base: H: 0.36 m; L: 4.76 m; W: 1.76 m
The Victory statue, about 1.5 times lifesize, is not cut from a single block of marble, but composed of six blocks worked separately: the body, the bust with the head, the two arms and the two wings. These blocks were assembled together by metal braces (bronze or iron). This technique, used for a long time by Greek sculptors for the protruding parts of statues, was used in Hellenistic times for the body itself, thus making it possible to use smaller pieces of marble, therefore less rare and less expensive. In the case of Victory, the sculptor optimized this technique by tilting the joint surfaces that connect the wings to the body by 20° forward, which ensured their cantilevered support in the back. To the body-block was added smaller projecting pieces: the end of the flying mantle at the back and the end of the fold falling to the ground in front of the left leg have been reattached; the right foot, the back of the left leg with the foot and a drapery fold in front of the legs are lost.
The ship is composed of 16 blocks divided into three increasingly wide assizes aft, placed on a rectangular base. The seventeenth block, which remained in Samothrace, completed the void at the back of the upper assembly, just under the statue. Its weight allowed the cantilever of the blocks of the protruding oar boxes to hold on the sides. The baseboard of the statue was embedded in a basin dug on this block. Its contours, fully visible during the 2014 restoration, made it possible to determine very precisely the location of the statue.
The statue and base are inseparable to ensure the balance of the monument, designed as a whole. The construction of the monument was a real technical feat, a masterpiece of an artist who was not only a virtuoso sculptor.
The sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace is located in a very narrow river valley. The buildings reserved for the Mysteries ceremonies occupied the entire bottom of the valley. From the 3rd century BCE, the entrance to the site was a monumental propylaia to the east. To the west was a very long portico to house pilgrims (the stoa) and important offerings. The Victory Monument was located at the south end of the portico terrace, in a rectangular space dug into the hillside, and set back and raised from the theatre; facing north, it overlooks the entire sanctuary. In 1863 Champoiseau described and drew the monument surrounded on three sides by a limestone wall. All that remains of this enclosure now are the foundations of the walls, surrounded at the bottom and sides by walls supporting the lands of the hill. The enclosure itself is 13.40 m wide by 9.55 long, and we know from the surveys made by Hauser in 1876 that the Victory was arranged obliquely 14° 5 from the back wall. This arrangement highlights the left side of the statue for the observer from the terrace, which explains why the sculpture work is much more elaborate on this side than on the other. Large natural rocks are visible in the front part of space. The foundation walls have been restored and the place of the monument artificially indicated.
The reconstructed whole has given rise to various interpretations. K. Lehmann hypothesized that the monument was placed in the basin of an open-air fountain, with water effects on the large rocks arranged for this purpose. But they could not be part of the original layout since the palm of the right hand was found under one of them: Charbonneau thought they came from a later natural landslide. The fountain hypothesis has been abandoned since the excavations of J. McCredie and B. Wescoat demonstrated that there was no water supply to the enclosure.
Recent research has not determined the exact nature of the Victory's architectural setting, more than 500 blocks of which have been reused in a Byzantine construction at the other end of the west hill. Fragments of coloured plaster and some elements of terracotta architectural decoration were found in the enclosure. Two 3D reconstructions have been proposed by B. Wescoat: either low walls forming a peribolos around the open-air monument, or a covered building with columns and pediment of the Naiskos type. The excellent state of conservation of the sculpture's surface suggests that it did not stay in the open air for long. The overall reconstruction of the sanctuary in 3D also highlighted that the statue of Victory was oriented along the axis of the river, which was the only unobstructed perspective of the sanctuary: the monument was thus clearly visible from the bottom of the valley.
Another hypothesis was proposed by Jean Richer who observed that the Ship on which the statue is placed represents the constellation of the Argo: the ship's bow and the statue had been deliberately placed at an angle, within the important Sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace, so that Victory looked northward: according to Richer, this direction shows the path that leads to the gate of the gods identified at Mount Hemos, and thus alludes to a spiritual victory; for, in this orientation, the momentum and gaze of the statue were directed at the northeast corner of the Anaktoron, seat of the Little Mysteries, where initiation was given. This angle was thus the most sacred of the building.
Function, date and style
In the sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace, as in all the great pan-Hellenic shrines, the faithful offered their ex-votos, from the most modest to the most sumptuous according to their wealth. It was a way to honour the gods and thank them for their benefits. In addition to a promise of a better spiritual life, the Cabeiri gods, including the Dioscuri, were reputed to ensure their protection to those who were initiated into their Mysteries if they were in danger at sea and in combat. Summoning them allowed their initiates to be saved from shipwreck and to obtain victory. In this context, a representation of Victory landing on a ship's bow can be interpreted as an offering to thank the Great Gods following an important naval victory.
Several major naval offerings were known in the 3rd century BC. In the Greek world, such as the "bull monument" in Delos, the naval monument of the agora in Cyrene and Samothrace itself, the Neorion, (No. 6 on the map), which housed a ship about twenty meters long. In Rhodes, an offering of the same type as the base of Samothrace, but smaller, was found in the sanctuary of Athena at the top of the acropolis of Lindos.
The dedication inscription of the Victory Monument has not been found. Archaeologists are reduced to hypothesizing to define the historical context and to determine the naval victory justifying the erection of such an important ex-voto. The difficulty lies in the fact that in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE. In this period, naval battles to dominate the Aegean Sea were very numerous, first pitting the Antigonids and their Seleucid allies against the Lagids, then the Seleucids to the Rhodians and Pergamon.
Austrian archaeologists first considered that the monument of Samothrace is the one represented on the tetradrachma of Demetrios Poliorcetes. They conclude that, like the coin, he celebrated his victory against Ptolemy I at the Battle of Salamis at Cyprus in 306 BCE. According to Benndorf, the Victory of Samothrace therefore dates from the last years of the fourth century BC. and may have been sculpted by a student of sculptor Scopas.
The construction of the monument was then related to the Battle of Cos (around 262-255 BCE)., during which the King of Macedonia Antigonus II Gonatas defeated the Lagids, allied with Athens and Sparta during the Chremonidean War. Antigonus Gonatas is also credited with the dedication, at the same time, of his flagship in the Neorium in Delos.
The material of the base of the Victory of Samothrace was identified as early as 1905 as marble from the quarries of Lartos in Rhodes. The same is true of the small fragment found in 1891 by Champoiseau within the walls of the monument to Samothrace, bearing the end of an engraved name: [...]Σ ΡΟΔΙΟΣ. In 1931, Hermann Thiersch restored the name of the sculptor "Pythocritos son of Timocharis of Rhodes", active around 210-165 BCE. He is convinced that the fragment belongs to the ship-shaped base: he therefore makes this sculptor the author of the Victory of Samothrace. According to him, the monument was commissioned by the Rhodians, allies in the kingdom of Pergamos against Antiochus III, after their victory at the naval battles of Side and Myonnesos, on the Ionian coast, in 190 BCE. The definitive victory against the Seleucus came in 189 BCE. at the Battle of Sipyla Magnesia. The monument was therefore reportedly erected in Samothrace shortly after that date. Jean Charbonneaux also admits the historical link between the Victory of Samothrace and the battles of Myonnesus and Magnesia, and makes it the dedication of King Eumene II.
Based on the same arguments, Nathan Badoud in 2018 favoured the conflict that earlier pitted the Rhodians and the King of Pergamon against King Philip V of Macedonia. The Rhodians were first defeated at the naval Battle of Lade in 201 BCE. Then Philip V was defeated at sea by the two allies at the Battle of Chios in 201 BCE. Persistent hostilities, Rhodes and Pergamon call the Roman Republic as reinforcements, and General Flamininus crushes the Macedonian army in Thessaly with the Battle of Cynoscephalae. The Rhodians reportedly dedicated the Victory Monument after that date, for their victory in Chios.
Other researchers have considered later occasions: the victory of the Romans at Pydna in 168 BCE. over Perseus, or a consecration of the kingdom of Pergamon at the same time, or the victory of Pergamon and Rhodes against Prusias II of Bithynia in 154 BCE..
Style and workshop
Although the supposed dedication inscription of the name of a Rhodian found at the Victory's base was very quickly contested because of its small size, the entire monument remained attributed to the Rhodian sculpture school. This made it possible to put an end to previous hesitations about the style of the statue. In 1955 Margarete Bieber made him a major figure in the "Rhodian school" and the "Hellenic Baroque", next to the frieze of the Gigantomachy of the Great Altar of Pergamon, characterized by the strength of attitudes, the virtuosity of the draperies and the expressiveness of the figures. This style lasted in Rhodes until Roman times in complex and monumental creations such as the Laocoon group or Sperlonga sculptures attributed or signed by Rhodian sculptors.
The base blocks and the sculpture of the statue are not by the same hand. The two parts of the monument were designed together, but produced by two different workshops. The marble base of Lartos was certainly made in Rhodes, where there are parallels. Moreover, the Rhodian sculpture in large marble is of high quality, without being exceptional for its time, but there are no parallels for the virtuosity of the Nike, which remains unusual. The sculptor could also come from elsewhere, as was common in the ancient Greek world for great artists. The Victory of Samothrace is a grandiose adaptation of the moving statue of the Athena-Niké of the Cyrene monument: the sculptor added wings, stretched out his front leg to express the flight, and modified the arrangement of the mantle with the floating panel at the back. He thus gives the statue of Samothrace a dynamic that brings it closer to the figures the Gigantomachy of the altar of Pergamon, conceived shortly after in the same spirit.
- In Greek the statue is called the Níki tis Samothrákis (Νίκη της Σαμοθράκης) and in French la Victoire de Samothrace. There are two further statues of Winged Victory of a different type found in the Samothrace temple complex, originally having adorned the roof of one of the temples: a Roman copy found by a team of Austrian archaeologists, now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and a third Winged Victory found by Phyllis Williams Lehmann in 1949, now in a museum at the Samothrace site.
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- B. Westcoat, From the Vantage of the Victory New Research on the Nike of Samothrace, National Humanities Center, 2015, accessed 22/11/2021. However, the wing cannot be identified with any particular breed of bird and seem to be a pure invention.
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- Wescoat in Hamiaux, Laugier, Martinez 2014, p. 55, 57, fig. 36, 37.
- Hamiaux 2006, p. 43, fig. 48-49. Not to be confused with the stern found carved in relief in the rock at the foot of the acropolis.
- Morrison Coates, 1996, p. 76-109.
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- Hamiaux 1998, p. 41, n° 51. H : 5 cm - la : 8 cm - ép : 16 cm
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- Queyrel, 2016, pp. 190-191.
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- Étienne Michon in : Thiersch 1931, p. 341 et 344 ; Hamiaux 2006, p. 53.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Nike of Samothrace.|
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