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Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace

Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace, Lartos marble (ship) and Parian marble (figure), c. 190 B.C.E. 3.28m high, Hellenistic Period (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The sculpture was unearthed in 1863 after its discovery under the direction of Charles Champoiseau​, the French Vice-Consul to Turkey. Please note that the theoretical reconstruction of the Nike as a trumpeter mentioned in the video has been largely abandoned; the monument is now thought to have been part of a fountain possibly commemorating a naval victory. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Beth] We're standing in the Louvre, looking at the very famous Nike of Samothrace. Now a Nike personifies victory. - [Steven] And was the goddess of victory as well. This sculpture is 18 feet tall if you include the ship that she stands on. And it's placed at the top of one of the grand staircases, so it is incredibly dramatic. - [Beth] She was found in pieces. She wasn't found whole the way that we see her today, and she's been reconstructed. The pieces that were missing have been filled in. And she was recently restored. - [Steven] Originally, this was placed in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods on the Island of Samothrace in the northeastern Aegean Sea. But we should say that we have very little information about this particular cult. What we do have is a magnificent sculpture. It was carved during the Hellenistic period. This is after the classical period, after Alexander the Great created one of the largest empires the world had known to that date. And it was a period when Greek art was extremely expressive. And in fact, art historians often pair this sculpture in its style with a sculpture that we find on the great frieze at the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon. - [Beth] In both cases, there's a sense of energy, and drama, and power. And although we can compare the drapery that clings in these complex folds to the body, to the sculptures on the earlier Parthenon, there's so much more drama here. - [Steven] I love the way in which the drape seems to be whipped by the wind. And it's interesting to note that the way that this ship would have originally been oriented, it would have been facing towards the coast with the wind coming off the sea. And so the actual wind on Samothrace would have functioned as a collaborator with the illusion of the sculpture. - [Beth] Now Nike figures are not unusual in ancient Greek art. To me, what's so special about this figure is the tension between the lower half of the body and the upper half. She's clearly alighting, landing on this ship, but with the lower part of her body, I feel that pull downward. But the upper part of her body seems to still be held aloft, and so her torso stretches up and twists slightly in the opposite direction of her legs. So there's this upward movement, but downward movement at the same time - [Steven] The sense of naturalism is so extraordinary that there seems to be nothing improbable about the wings attached to the shoulders of this figure. It just seems completely natural. - [Beth] It used to be thought that perhaps this figure stood within a fountain and perhaps was blowing a trumpet or offering a crown of victory, but we now think that her hand was simply outstretched. Either she was in an open sanctuary or a slightly enclosed sanctuary. I love the pinkish white, almost golden color of the marble that she's carved from and the grayish color of the ship. - [Steven] There's a wonderful contrast between those two materials. Although she's lost her head, and both of her arms, and other bits and pieces as well, we are so lucky to have this sculpture this intact. - [Beth] Well think about all that's been lost that didn't survive and the incredible achievements of ancient Greek and specifically Hellenistic art. (gentle piano music)