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A closer look at the Victory of Samothrace

A closer look at the Victory of Samothrace

The statue, made of white Paros marble, stands 2.75 m (9 feet) tall, including the wings. The base (2.01 m, 6 feet 7 ins) and the pedestal (36 cm, 1 foot 2 ins) are sculpted from grey white-veined marble from the quarries of Lartos on the island of Rhodes. To shorten the skirts, the cloth is gathered by a belt, hidden by the folds which hang over the hips. The fabric over the stomach and the left thigh is shot over with wrinkles that seem to skim over the skin underneath. A large gathering of folds have slipped between the figure’s legs, leaving the left hip and leg uncovered. The right hip and leg are covered to half-way down the calf. The cloak has swept open, with a fold of cloth streaming out behind the figure, so that we see the inside of the cloth. The unfastened cloak is held against the Victory’s body by the sheer force of the wind.

The statue is best seen from a three-quarter left view, where the lines of composition are seen at their clearest: a long vertical line leading up the right leg to the top of the torso, and a slanting line leading up the left leg and thigh to the torso. The frontal view is structured by the line of the right leg outlined by the fabric of the cloak, while the left leg is almost entirely hidden behind the folds of drapery. The hips and shoulders likewise are square to the viewer, and the torso is quite straight. The sculpture is much plainer on this side, as the artist must have thought it was not worthwhile expending so much effort on a side rarely seen by onlookers. The right wing currently attached to the statue is a mirror-image cast of the left wing. Two surviving fragments from the original right wing indicate that it was raised higher, slanting upward and outward. A tiny fragment from the top of the right arm shows that the arm was raised slightly away from the figure’s side and was bent at the elbow. Their position has been recreated thanks to the shape of the surface where they would have been placed. The right foot was just alighting on the ship’s deck, while the left was still in the air. Only the position of the head, which doubtless looked straight ahead, and the left arm, probably down by the figure’s side, remain hypothetical.

The Hellenistic period saw numerous naval battles between the kingdoms inherited by the successors of Alexander the Great as they fought for control of the Aegean Sea. The best-known of these developments was the invention of oar boxes, which were wooden structures jutting out from the ship’s flanks. They were used to bear the weight of several tiers of longer, more powerful oars. The oar boxes on the base of the statue are particularly well preserved. The rams from the Samothrace base have been lost entirely. They would have been carved in stone, like those on the base of the naval monument in the agora of Cyrene in Libya. The diagram shows the keel, the large ram extending from the main wale, the smaller ram extending from the stem at the level of the upper wale, the oar boxes with the oar slots, the gunwale, the prow ornament, and the fighting deck.

The statue of the Victory of Samothrace consists of several blocks of marble, carved separately and then assembled. The sculptor solved the problem by carving the outer face of each wing in one tier and slotting them into a sort of console decorated with feathers sculpted at the back of the main block forming the body. Moreover, a slight downward slope in the horizontal surface on which the wings rested meant that their weight was borne by the body, so that two metal dowels were all it took to hold them in place. On a rectangular base consisting of six adjoining slabs stand seventeen blocks, originally held together with metal pins, forming three horizontal courses, rising slightly towards the front. The course of the oar boxes at the back consists of two adjacent blocks, the deck of three. The gap at the back of the top level was not part of the original work. It housed a large block weighing slightly over two metric tons, left in Samothrace, Nike Pas Cher with a cavity into which the statue was slotted. How is this possible? When the statue is fixed into position in the cavity, its center of gravity is directly over the short back part, weighing down on it with 2.5 to 3 metric tons of marble. This holds the front of the prow up in the air. This complex system was designed to give the stone keel the natural appearance and dynamic forward thrust of a genuine wooden ship. The statue thus played an essential role in maintaining the balance of the work as a whole. The statue and its base clearly belong together, and were obviously designed together as a single monument by a sculptor of great virtuosity, even genius.

The island of Samothrace is located in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Thrace, in north-eastern Greece. The island is a tall mountain that rises above the waves. They continued digging to find the head and arms, but in vain. They did, however, find numerous small fragments of drapery and feathers, leading Champoiseau to the correct conclusion that the statue represented the goddess Victory. He sent the statue and the fragments to France, where they arrived at the Louvre a year later, on May 11, 1864. He left them in place, thinking they were part of a tomb. In 1875, the architect of the Austrian archaeological mission working on the Samothrace sanctuary examined the blocks, producing drawings of them. He concluded that correctly assembled, they would form the prow of a ship constituting the base for a statue. He thought of Greek coins he had seen dating from the reign of Demetrius Poliorcetes, depicting Victory standing on the prow of a ship. Champoiseau heard about this discovery in 1879, and set about having the blocks from the prow sent to Paris, along with the slabs from the pedestal beneath. The main features of this were as follows: the right side of the marble torso was placed in position on the body, the left side and the belt were recreated in plaster. The left wing was put together from several marble fragments and strengthened at the back by a metal frame before being put in place. As only two fragments of the right wing survived, it was replaced by a mirror-image cast of the left wing. Only the head, arms, and feet were not remodeled. The statue was placed directly on the ship, whose blocks were shaped and the gaps filled. Neither the ornamentation on the prow nor the rams were recreated. To heighten the visual impact yet further, a modern block was added between the statue and its base during renovations in 1934.

The sanctuary of Samothrace, famed throughout Antiquity, consisted of a cluster of buildings dedicated to the worship of the Great Gods and ceremonial Mysteries. The sanctuary thus had to be extended, and work began on the heights overlooking the site. A monumental entrance was built to the east. The monument stood in a small building, of which only the foundations remain, protected by recently restored retaining walls but partly hidden under rocks from landslides. The building had three walls, opening at the front onto the terrace with its portico. Given the excellent state of preservation of the Victory’s marble surface, the building would certainly have had a roof. From the evidence of the foundations, the Victory was placed not perpendicular to the back wall of the building, but at a slight angle. The Great Gods of Samothrace were invoked by initiates for protection in situations of danger, for example the threat of shipwreck or battle. A stele in Larissa, Thessaly, dedicated to the Theoi Megaloi or Great Gods, Nike Pas Cher Homme depicts them as horsemen galloping across the heavens like the Dioscuri, accompanying a winged Victory bearing a wreath. She is bringing it for the man who dedicated the stele, shown at the bottom with his wife preparing a banquet in honor of the gods. So an offering representing a Victory on the prow of a battleship is perfectly suited to the site. It was doubtless consecrated in thanks to the gods after a victorious naval battle. Unfortunately, the excavations have not uncovered the dedicatory inscription, which would tell us the circumstances whereby the monument was built, the name of the donor, and maybe even the identity of the sculptor.

No statues produced anywhere throughout the Greek world during the Hellenistic period bear comparison with the Victory of Samothrace. Some experts have thus concluded that the statue as a whole was made in Rhodes and that the work was an offering by the people of Rhodes to the sanctuary in Samothrace. However, there is no clear evidence that the statue, like the base, was sculpted on Rhodes, as the virtuoso handling of the drapery certainly called for more skill than would have been found in the type of workshops that produced the base. Sculptures from the highly productive workshops of Pergamon, capital of the Attalid dynasty, in Asia Minor, offer a better comparison. The Great Altar in particular is close in style to the Victory of Samothrace, especially the Gigantomachy frieze decorating the base. Hundreds of gods, goddesses, and monstrous giants, carved in very high relief, do battle across the panels. The eastern Mediterranean saw many battles between rival fleets following the accession of Philip V of Macedonia in 221 BC. Philip’s defeat in 197 BC and the humiliating defeat of the ruler of Antioch at the hands of the Pergamon forces in 189 BC led to the end of such naval battles. After that, there were no further battles of the sort commemorated by the Victory of Samothrace for many years. It thus seems likely that the sculptor worked on the Victory in Samothrace between 220 and 185 BC, before beginning work on the Great Altar of Pergamon.

The Greeks represented concepts such as Peace, Fortune, Vengeance, and Justice as goddesses at a very early date. Victory was one of the earliest of these incarnations. She is a female figure with large wings that enable her to fly over the earth spreading news of victory, whether in athletic competition or in battle. She is a messenger (angelos in Greek) who sometimes uses a trumpet to make her message better heard. As she flies, she brings the victor the insignia of victory – a crown, fillet, palm, trophy of arms, or naval trophy. She is found in a multiplicity of forms – statues, reliefs, vessels, coins, and terracotta or bronze figurines. Such figures followed the stylistic evolution of Greek art, undergoing constant development. They immediately adopted and adapted her as a symbol of Rome’s domination of the known world (orbi), an incarnation of imperial power, and an emblem of the virtue of the Roman people. She is shown standing on a globe, crowning the emperor and holding a shield inscribed with the glory of Rome. Angels holding globes and crosses stood close to God as representations of his power and glory. However, although angels owed part of their role to Greek and Roman representations of Victory, their image was rather different. Early Christian depictions of angels show them with a halo and dressed in male garb typical of Antiquity – a long, wide-sleeved tunic covered with a pallium, or long cloak, worn draped diagonally across the chest or thrown over the shoulders. They were winged messengers who came down from heaven to announce God’s will to mankind. Angels only began to wear female garments in the late medieval period, when the draped cloak was no more than a small drapery worn like a shawl and the tunic became an elegant tight-sleeved gown with a high waist. Nike Pas Cher France The artistic popularity of antique models during the Italian Quattrocento meant that angels began to resemble female Victories, although the Christian context leaves no doubt as to their identity.


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