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Nike of Samothrace

Nike of SamothraceNike of Samothrace
ca. 190 B.C.

The winged goddess Nike (victory) was the daughter of the Titans, Pallas and Styx; her siblings included Zelos (rivalry), Kratos (strength), and Bia (force). After helping Zeus banish the Titans from Mt. Olympus, the supreme god honored Nike, and she then earned her title as the goddess of victory. The image of Nike is prominent throughout Greek art and was traditionally associated with victory in war, athletics, and even poetry contests. Her presence invoked a spirit of celebration and commemorated the arête (physical and moral excellence) of gods and men.

The Nike of Samothrace originally stood on the marble bow of a sculpted warship, a monument that commemorated a naval victory. The Nike is designed to seem as if she is just landing in a fierce headwind, her great wings still aloft. The body twists slightly as if to maintain its balance, while the sheer chiton, heavy with sea spray, both clings and billows dramatically. This monument was erected in a grotto on a hill overlooking the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the northern Aegean island of Samothrace. A reflecting pool created the illusion that the warship was sailing out of its rectangular base while a misting fountain simulated sea spray.

Made of Parian marble, the Nike is an excellent example of the expressive, Hellenistic style. The lively drapery, twisting pose, and dramatic setting create a dynamic composition that has much in common with the art of Pergamon (see supplement on the Great Altar of Pergamon). Although the Nike’s arms and head are missing, a hand discovered in 1950 clearly shows that the goddess was not holding a victory wreath, her usual attribute (less frequently, a palm frond).

The exact date, artist, and event commemorated by this work are unknown. The date is based on the style and similarities to other sculpture from Pergamon. The pottery found in the area where this monument was excavated points to a connection with the island of Rhodes, an island in the southeast Aegean. The last known Rhodian naval victory was in 190 B.C., when the Rhodian navy defeated the Seleucids, a Greek dynasty that ruled from Antioch in Syria. If the Rhodians erected the Nike in thanks for this victory, then the date can be secured.

Today, the original Nike of Samothrace stands on the grand staircase landing of the Louvre Museum in Paris. Her large size, dramatic forward motion, and location in the museum attract much attention. As one of the most famous works from antiquity, she is a prime example of the innovative use of a traditional subject combined with the drama and theatricality of the later Hellenistic Period.

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