Winged Victory of Samothrace (early 2nd century BC)

Hellenistic (Greek), Winged Victory of Samothrace (early 2nd century BC). 3.28 meters tall, Gray Lartos marble for the ship, Parian marble for the statue. The Louvre, Paris.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace is one of the most famous works of art and is definitely up there in the category of ancient art. The statue stands at the top of the main staircase in the Louvre and anyone who visits, whether to see the phenomenal Caravaggio's and Davids or to see that silly portrait that everyone talks about*, has to walk by it. A hugely popular artwork the Victory is not usually appreciated for its context but rather its intimidating appearance and location within the Louvre. However, Victory figures decorate some of the most beautiful ancient sites in the world and the Winged Victory takes its place among them with the incredible drapery and movement the art was able to create.

The work was uncovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace by Charles Champoiseau, the French politician. The religious sanctuary at Samothrace was dedicated to the gods who protected seafaring men and naval officers of war. The statue of Nike, the goddess of Victory, was an offering to honor of these gods. Because of the placement of Nike at the prow of a ship it has been suggested that the statue was commissioned as a commemoration of a naval victory of the Rhodians over an enemy. The ship the sculpture perches on is a Rhodian creation. From the dating of the work to around 190 BC, if it was created for a specific event it would have celebrated the Rhodian's victory over might have been created to celebrate the battle of Myonnisos, or the battle of Side.

The sculpture itself is beautifully described by Marie-Bénédicte Astier in her catalogue entry of the Louvre's collection. I quote her here in writing, "With her right hand cupped around her mouth, she announced the event she was dedicated to commemorate. The colossal work was placed in a rock niche that had been dug into a hill; it overlooked the theater of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. This niche may also have contained a pool filled with water in which the ship appeared to float. Given its placement, the work was meant to be viewed from the front left-hand side; this explains the disparity in sculpting technique, the right side of the body being much less detailed. The highly theatrical presentation-combined with the goddess's monumentality, wide wingspan, and the vigor of her forward-thrusting body-reinforces the reality of the scene. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is one of the masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture. The figure creates a spiraling effect in a composition that opens out in various directions. This is achieved by the oblique angles of the wings and the placement of the left leg, and emphasized by the clothing blowing between the goddess's legs. The nude female body is revealed by the transparency of the wet drapery, much in the manner of classical works from the fifth century BC, while the cord worn just beneath the breasts recalls a clothing style that was popular beginning in the fourth century. In the treatment of the tunic-sometimes brushing against the body, sometimes billowing in the wind-the sculptor has been remarkably skillful in creating visual effects. The decorative richness, sense of volume, and intensity of movement are characteristic of a Rhodian style that prefigures the baroque creations of the Pergamene school (180-160 BC)."

The Winged Victory is more than just a welcome sign to visitors of the Louvre. It stately appearance shows Nike's close relationship with the goddess of war, Pallas Athena, and her important role in the day-to-day lives of Hellenistic peoples. This magnificent work presides over one of the most incredible museum collections in the world but after I see her, every time I am left with the feeling that I wish I could have seen her presiding over the Sanctuary of the Great Gods in Rhodes and over blue Aegean beyond in her winged glory.

*The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci if you live under a rock :)


  1. An artist we show just sent us a two sculptures both entitled "Nike of Samothrace". He directed me to the Louvre, to "Winged Victory of Samothrace" for a little background knowledge. Just thought that was kind of cool and random. Hope all's well with you my dear! We miss you.

  2. I seem to remember a very young Lydia sitting under this very statue and being very unhappy and bored by the whole Louvre experience. How far she has come!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Oh Guy, so true. I have a great picture of that corner in the Louvre. I want to frame it and write beneath it, "when it all began"