Say hello to the Nike of Samothrace, The Winged Victory, or the Greatest Masterpiece of Hellenistic Sculpture.
The statue likely commemorates a greek naval victory. But, which victory exactly is debated. Things get murky when dealing with slabs of marble over two thousand years old. The mainstream theory is that Nike honors the battle of Cos in 260-ish BCE between the Macedonians and the Egyptians. But other scholars contend that it celebrates the Battle of Amorgos in 322 BCE or the Battle of Salamis in 306.
If greek naval history isn’t complicated enough, the identity sculptor behind The Winged Victory is also fuzzy. Art historians generally credit Pythokritos of Lindos (read: Crete). Not only is the man’s name impossible to pronounce but a quick wikipedia search turns up next to nothing.
So why exactly did this headless, obscure statue earn the title of The Greatest Masterpiece of Hellenistic Sculpture? To understand the awesomeness that is the Winged Victory you have to look at it.
It just kind of takes your break away. There are, of course, a couple of things that we can pinpoint to understand how Victory generates this response.
The first, is the paradox at the heart of Hellenistic sculpture. The figures appears to be moving — the billowing motion of the clothing, the curved sense of wind against wings — while also remaining resolute and stoic. This visual dichotomy is a pleasure point for our western aesthetic sensibilities. The elegant proportions and natural curving pose are also subconscious the eye candy.
Victory seems to posses a sculptural spatial awareness. The way the statue steps forward and the position of the wings behind give viewers the impression that Victory has just landed in the middle of the Louvre staircase. This interaction between the statue and the space around it, places it in a category above other great treasures of Hellenistic art.
Finally, the missing head nails it. As imagined by the Greeks, this is a divine figure that has flown down from the heavens to trumpet their victory over their enemies.But, Greek mythology explains that humans are incapable of seeing the Gods in their true glorious form (a trail of burnt out eyeballs follow the lowly who dare look upon the Olympians). So I really like that the statue its in modern form is incomplete. It retains a sense of divine mystery.
Some scholars have attempted to generate an idea of how the complete statue would have looked originally. Personally, I don’t think the digital mock-ups retain the statue’s current sense of gravitas. It’s much more fun to fill in the blank ourselves.