The statue was meant to be viewed primarily from its left side in three-quarter view. This can be seen clearly on the right side of the body, which – like the back of the image – is rendered in much less detail.
Compared to the dynamic composition and fine details of the left, the arrangement of the statue’s right side is rather straightforward. The goddess descends from the heavens and just alights the prow of a ship with her right foot while her left is still in the air. The base of grey Lartos marble suggests that the artwork is not only intended as a tribute to Nike, but also served to commemorate a victory in a naval battle.
Together with the base and the pedestal on which it stands, the work measures an impressive 5.57 meters in height.
The statue of the goddess of victory was excavated in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace by the French vice-consul and amateur archaeologist Charles Champoiseau. This island was home of the ancient sanctuary dedicated to the Great Gods (Megaloi Theoi in Greek). These enigmatic deities received a Pan-Hellenic chthonic mystery cult, on par in status with the Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone at Attica.
As initiates to mystery cults were sworn to secrecy, little is known about the Samothracian cult and the Great Gods. Due to its strategic location along various trade routes in the northern Aegean Sea, the cult was associated with protection at sea and was therefore popular with seafarers. It is said that the parents of Alexander the Great, Philip II of Macedon and Olympias of Epirus, first met each other as initiates in Samothrace (Plut. Alex. 2.1).
During the Hellenistic period the sanctuary of the Great Gods underwent intensive renovations when the Successors of Alexander the Great tried to surpass each other in generosity and committed themselves to beautify and enlarge the temple complex. A monumental entrance was built to the east, the top of the hill to the west was flattened into a terrace, and a colonnade was erected. At the southernmost point of the plateau, on the highest and most remote part of the sanctuary, the statue of Nike was placed in a hewn-rock niche. The archaeological remains of a foundation and the good condition of the marble statue suggest that the Nike was housed in a small building with a roof.
The statue of Nike was however found in pieces between the ruins of the sanctuary. Fragments of her clothing and feathers from the wings were also discovered, but the head and the arms were never retrieved. When Champoiseau unearthed a number of grey marble blocks and the remains of a building near the statue, he drew the conclusion that they were part of a tomb.
In 1875, the site was examined by a group of Austrian archaeologists, who realised that the blocks would form the prow of a ship when they were joined together and that the whole had to represent the base of a statue. Champoiseau heard this and had the blocks brought to the Louvre to merge them with the Nike.
In 1950, the fingerless right hand of the statue was uncovered under a large rock near the site where the Nike originally stood. Not long afterwards it became clear that a few fingers, which were stored in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, belonged to the statue.
Over the years many reconstructions have been attempted of the famous Nike of Samothrace. Not only the head and arms of the goddess are missing, but also the feet, while the right wing is a mirror-image casts in plaster from the left wing.
As such, the present state of the statue still leaves much to the imagination. For instance, did Nike hold objects in her hands – and if so which? It has been suggested that she held a wreath to honor the victor of a naval battle, a trumpet to signal the victory, or that she cupped her hand to announce the victor.
Fragments of the missing parts offer insight into the original posture of the statue. The right wing will have been raised higher and lifted upwards. The right arm would have been held away from the body, with its elbow bent. The fragments of the right hand clearly show that she cannot have held any object as the palm is open and the fingers stretched out.
The Nike must therefore have simply raised her right arm in greeting. Her left arm may have been held along the body. Her head, so important for such a divine image, may have looked straight ahead, but one can only speculate about the features and expression of her face.
What occasioned the dedication of this masterwork on Samothrace, specifically which naval victory, still eludes us. Hypotheses have ranged the gamut of historically consequential naval victories from the Battle of Salamis (306 BC) to the Battle of Actium (31 BC).
From the origin of the grey Lartos marble, quarried on Rhodes for local manufacture, we can deduce that the Rhodians dedicated a victory monument to mark their contribution to the defeat of the Seleucid king Antiochus the Great in 188 BC. This was also the first time that the Roman Republic engaged in warfare along the Eastern Mediterranean. Samothrace, however, remained under Macedonian control for another two decades.
The aforementioned Battle of Salamis, in which Demetrius Poliorcetes crushed the naval power of Ptolemy Soter off the coast of Cyprus, is a problematic candidate. The ship on which Nike aligns, namely, is a so-called trihēmiolia (a type of trireme) that first appeared among the Rhodian fleet during Demetrius’ failure to besiege Rhodes (305-304 BC).
Demetrius was unlikely to have had access to the Lartos marble, and would not have depicted a ship invented by his opponents. Samothrace at the time fell under the suzerainty of his rival Cassander. Demetrius claimed Macedonian kingship only a decade later (294 BC). The victory monument at Samothrace can therefore be attributed to one of the many naval battles before the Treaty of Apamea, probably since the accession of Philip V of Macedon (221 BC).
The Nike of Samothrace is one of the few surviving examples of original Hellenistic sculpture, rather than a Roman copy. Despite its incomplete survival, in mastery it rivals the pediments of the Athenian Parthenon and the Great Altar of Pergamon. Even if the historical events that occasioned its dedication remain unclear, the Winged Victory is truly a masterwork of Hellenistic sculpture.
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