The Nike of Samothrace
The Nike of Samothrace (fig. 1)
Charles Champoiseau uncovered pieces of masterfully worked Parian marble in April of 1863.1 On Samothraki, the island from which Poseidon is said to have watched the fall of Troy, these segments of stone came together to form four main sections: a torso, a headless bust, a section of drapery, and a wing.2 The sections were shaped to be assembled though the use of cantilevering and metal dowels, allowing the sculptor to extend beyond medium’s gravitational limitations (fig. 2). Just one year later, the pieces were assembled (and those missing were remodeled), and the Greek goddess Nike was revealed at the Louvre.
A Hellenistic masterpiece, she is caught at the very moment in which she alights on the prow of a warship. Right leg outstretched, her hips bend left and her shoulders twist back to the right, creating a beautiful sense of torsion through the contrapposto technique. Her massive wings are blown back by the speed of her flight and the ship, possibly in the moment just before she furls them. Damp from the spray of the sea, her tunic is plastered tightly around her body by the driving wind, held in place with two belts, one around her waist and the other beneath her breasts. A second piece of cloth called a himation has slipped from around her waist and streams out on either side behind her, blown tightly against her thighs. Both garments exhibit virtuoso handling of the drapery—the wet folds of the fine cloth can be felt by the viewer, cool in the misty gusts, and the transitions to where her skin can be seen underneath is flawless.
She and the ship on which she stands were recessed into a niche in the stone around the outer rim of the amphitheater in the sanctuary on Samothrace (fig. 3). The ship is thought to have been part of a fountain, the supporting stones were carved in the shape of rippling waves, and natural boulders jutted out of the ground around it, giving the impression that the ship was moving at sea—capturing the Hellenistic ideal of movement from her wing tips down to the battering ram and oar boxes of the victor’s warship.3
Nike is the daughter of the titan Pallas and the river Styx.4 She was born the personification of victory and strength.5 The goddess is customarily shown with some means of declaring a victor’s superiority—with a circlet or sash to crown them, a lyre to sing of the victory, a trumpet to declare the conflict over, or a palm branch to signify the same.6
In the case of the Nike of Samothrace, it is not yet known what she held. This is just one example of the limitations to our knowledge of the ancient world—forces of nature made the beautiful and pale Parian marble used to construct the goddess, and they also broke her apart. Only fragments of a hand have been found—her arms and head are still lost. Until they are found, we will not know if her lips were pursed for a trumpet blast, or her arms were...