The Victory of Samothrace is a votive monument found on the island of Samothrace, in the northern Aegean Sea. It is a masterpiece of Greek sculpture of the Hellenistic period, dating from the early first century B.C.
It consists of a statue of the goddess Nike (Victory), whose head and arms are missing, and its base in the shape of a ship's bow. The total height of the monument is 5.12 meters; the statue alone measures 2.75 meters. The ensemble has been on display in the Louvre Museum, at the top of the main staircase, since 1884.
Discovery and restoration of Winged Victory of Samothrace
In the 19th century
In 1863, Charles Champoiseau (1830-1909), in charge of the French consulate in Andrinople (now Edirne in Turkey), undertook from March 6 to May 7 the exploration of the ruins of the sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace.
On April 13, 1863, he discovered part of the bust and the body of a large female statue in white marble accompanied by numerous fragments of drapery and feathers. He identified the goddess Niké, the Victory, traditionally represented in Greek antiquity as a winged woman.
In the same place, he found a jumble of fifteen large blocks of grey marble, the form and function of which he did not understand: he even thought that it was a funerary monument.
He decided to send the statue and the fragments to the Louvre Museum, and to leave the large blocks of gray marble in place. The statue left Samothrace at the beginning of May 1863 and arrived in Toulon at the end of August and in Paris on May 11, 18644.
1864-1866 : a first restoration was undertaken by Adrien Prévost de Longpérier, the curator of Antiques at the Louvre at that time. The main part of the body (2.14 m, from the top of the belly to the feet) was erected on a stone base, and largely completed by the fragments of drapery, including the flap that flew up behind the legs.
The remaining fragments - the right part of the bust and a large part of the left wing - are too incomplete to be placed on the statue, and are put in reserve. Given the exceptional quality of the sculpture, Longpérier decided to present the body alone, which was exhibited until 1880 among the Roman statues, first in the Caryatids room, then briefly in the Tiber room.
1875 : the Austrian archaeologists who, under the direction of Alexander Conze, had been excavating the buildings of the sanctuary of Samothrace since 1870, studied the site where Champoiseau had found the Victory.
The architect Aloïs Hauser drew the blocks of grey marble that had remained on the site and understood that, when correctly assembled, they formed the tapered prow of a warship, and that, placed on a pedestal of slabs, they served as the base of the statue.
Tetradrachms of Demetrios Poliorcetes, minted between 301 and 292 BC, depicting a Victory on the bow of a ship, wings spread, give a good idea of this type of monument.
For his part, the ancient sculpture specialist O. Benndorf, a specialist in ancient sculpture, studied the body of the statue and the fragments preserved in the Louvre, and restored the statue blowing a trumpet that she raises with her right arm, as on the coin. The two men thus succeeded in making a model of the Samothrace monument in its entirety.
1879 : Champoiseau, informed of this research, undertook a second mission to Samothrace from 15 to 29 August with the sole aim of sending the blocks of the base and the slabs of the pedestal of the Victory to the Louvre. He abandoned the largest block of the base on the island, unsculpted. Two months later, the blocks arrived at the Louvre, where in December a trial assembly was carried out in a courtyard.
1880-1883: The curator of the Department of Antiquities, Félix Ravaisson-Mollien, then decided to reconstruct the monument, in accordance with the model of the Austrian archaeologists.
On the body of the statue, he redid the belt area in plaster, placed the right part of the bust in marble, redid the left part in plaster, fixed the left wing in marble with the help of a metal frame, and modeled the entire right wing in plaster. But he did not remake the head, arms or feet.
The ship-shaped base is rebuilt and completed, except for the broken front of the keel, and a large gap remains at the top of the back. The statue is placed directly on the base. The whole monument is placed in front, on the upper landing of the Daru staircase, the main staircase of the museum, which in the following years was equipped with an overloaded decoration.
1891 : Champoiseau returned to Samothrace a third time to try to find the head of Victory, without success. He brought back fragments of the drapery and the base, a small fragment with an inscription and fragments of colored plaster.
In the 20th century
1934 : the presentation of the Victory was modified as part of a general reorganization of the museum and the Daru staircase, whose steps were widened and the decoration of the landing camouflaged.
The monument was staged to form the crowning glory of the staircase: it was moved forward on the landing to be more visible from the bottom of the steps, and the statue was raised at the base by a 45 cm high modern stone block, supposed to evoke a battle deck at the bow of the ship. This presentation remained unchanged until 2013.
1939-1945: When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the statue of Victory was taken down from its base to be evacuated and put in a safe place with the other masterpieces of the Louvre Museum. It remained in the Château de Valençay (Indre) until the Liberation, and was returned to its place at the top of the staircase without damage in July 1945.
1950 : the American excavators of the University of New York, under the direction of Karl Lehmann, resumed since 1938 the exploration of the sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace. In July 1950, they associated with their work the curator of the Louvre, Jean Charbonneaux, who discovered the palm of the statue's right hand in the site of the Victory.
Two fingers that had been preserved in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna since the Austrian excavations of 1875 were attached to the palm. The palm and the fingers are deposited in the Louvre Museum, and have been presented next to the statue since 1954.
1996: two pieces of gray marble used to moor fishing boats on the shore below the sanctuary were brought back to the museum in 1952. They were studied in 1996 by Ira Mark and Marianne Hamiaux, who concluded that these pieces, which were joined, constituted the base block abandoned by Champoiseau in 1879.
In the 21st century
2008-2014 : the American team led by J. McCredie undertakes the digitization of the entire sanctuary to allow its reconstruction in 3D.
2013-2014 : under the direction of B. D. Wescoat, resumption of the study of the Victory enclosure and of the small base fragments preserved in reserve.
2013-2014: In Paris, the Louvre Museum undertakes the restoration of the entire monument with two objectives: to clean all the heavily soiled surfaces and to improve the general presentation.
The statue is taken down from its base to undergo scientific examinations (UV, infrared, X-rays, microspectrography, analysis of the marble): traces of blue paint are detected on the wings and on a strip at the bottom of the mantle. The blocks of the base were dismantled one by one to be drawn and studied.
The nineteenth-century restoration of the statue was preserved with a few details (thinning of the neck and the attachment of the left arm) , fragments kept in reserve at the Louvre were added (feather at the top of the left wing, a fold at the back of the chitôn), and the metal prop behind the left leg was removed.
Casts of small jointed fragments preserved in Samothrace are integrated into the base. A cast of the large block of ship that remained in Samothrace is positioned while the exact location of the statue on the base is determined and is replaced by a metal pedestal on a jack to ensure the statue's proper balance.
Once the statue is in place on the base, the contrast in color of the marble of the two elements becomes obvious again. The whole thing was reassembled on a modern base, set back a little on the landing to facilitate the circulation of visitors.
Description of The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The statue, made of white marble from Paros, represents a winged woman, the goddess of Victory (Nikè), finishing her flight to land on the prow of a warship.
Victory is dressed in a long tunic (chitôn) made of very thin fabric, with a folded flap and belted under the chest. It was attached to the shoulders by two thin straps (the restoration is not exact).
The lower body is partially covered by a thick coat (himation) rolled up at the waist and unraveling to expose the entire left leg; one end slides between the legs to the ground, and the other, much shorter, flies freely down the back. The cloak is falling, and only the force of the wind holds it on the right leg.
The sculptor has multiplied the effects of drapery, between the places where the fabric is pressed against the body, revealing its forms, especially on the belly, and those where it accumulates in folds deeply hollowed out with shadow, as between the legs. This extreme virtuosity concerns the left side and the front of the statue. On the right side, the drapery is reduced to the main lines of the clothes, in a much less elaborate work.
The goddess moves forward, leaning on her right leg. The two feet that were bare have disappeared. The right foot was touching the ground, the heel still slightly raised; the left foot, the leg strongly stretched back, was still carried in the air. The goddess did not walk, she was finishing her flight, her large wings still spread backwards.
The arms have disappeared, but the raised right shoulder indicates that the right arm was raised to the side. The elbow bent, the goddess was making a gesture of victorious salute with her hand: this hand with outstretched fingers was not holding anything (neither trumpet, nor crown, nor band).
There is no clue as to the position of the left arm, which was probably lowered, very slightly bent; the goddess may have been holding a stylis on this side, a sort of mast taken as a trophy from the enemy ship, as can be seen on the coins. The statue is designed to be seen from three quarters left (right for the viewer), from which the lines of the composition are very clear:
a vertical line running from the neck to the right foot, and an oblique line running diagonally from the neck all the way down the left leg. "The entire body is inscribed in a rectangular triangle, a simple geometric figure, but very solid: this was necessary to support both the blossoming forms of the goddess, the accumulation of draperies, and the energy of the movement ".
The boat and the base
They are carved in gray marble veined with white, identified as that of the quarries of Lartos (Lardos), in Rhodes. The base is shaped like the prow of a Greek warship of the Hellenistic period: long and narrow, it is covered at the front by a fighting deck on which the statue stands. It has reinforced oar boxes on the sides that supported two staggered rows of oars (the swimming ports are shown). The keel is rounded.
At the bottom of the bow, at the level of the waterline, was represented the large spur with triple fins and a little higher a smaller spur with two blades: they were used to break the hull of the enemy ship. The top of the bow was crowned by a high and curved bow ornament (the acrostolion). These missing elements have not been reconstructed, which greatly diminishes the warlike appearance of the ship.
The epigraphist Ch. Blinkenberg thought that this prow was that of a trihemiola, a type of warship often named in Rhodesian inscriptions: the island's shipyards were renowned, and its war fleet was important. However, scholars of ancient naval architecture do not agree on the restitution of the trihemiola.
One can only say that the bow of Samothrace has oar boxes and two oar banks on top of each other. As each oar is operated by several rowers, it may also be suitable for a tetrere (4 rows of rowers per side) or a pentere (5 rowers per side). These ships were very common in all Hellenistic war fleets, including the Rhodian fleet.
Dimensions and construction of the ensemble
Total height : 5,12 m
Statue : H : 2,75 m with wings ; 2,40 m body without head
Ship: H: 2.01 m; Lo cons. : 4,29 m ; W max. : 2,48 m
Base: H: 0.36 m; L: 4.76 m; W: 1.76 m
The statue of Victory, about 1.5 times the natural height, is not carved from a single block of marble, but composed of six blocks worked separately: the body, the bust with the head, the two arms and the two wings. These blocks were assembled together by metal (bronze or iron) dowels inserted into joint surfaces.
This technique had long been used by Greek sculptors for the protruding parts of the statues, and was used in the Hellenistic period for the body itself, thus allowing the use of smaller pieces of marble, which were therefore less rare and less expensive.
In the case of the Victory, the sculptor optimized this technique by tilting the joint surfaces that connect the wings to the body forward by 20°, which allowed them to be cantilevered in the back. To the body block were added smaller protruding pieces: the end of the flying cloak at the back and the end of the flap falling to the ground in front of the left leg were reattached; the right foot, the back of the left leg with the foot, and a fold of drapery in front of the legs are lost.
The vessel is composed of 16 blocks divided into three seats, which become wider towards the back, and placed on a rectangular base. The seventeenth block, which remained in Samothrace, completed the void at the back of the upper seat, just below the statue.
Its weight allowed the cantilever of the blocks of the oar boxes protruding from the sides to be held in place. The plinth of the statue was embedded in a bowl cut into this block. Its contours, fully visible during the 2014 restoration, allowed the location of the statue to be determined very precisely.
Placed just plumb to the rear of the main keel block, its weight helped to keep the entire front of the keel raised, which lifts off the base to evoke the dynamic shape of a warship.
The statue and the base are inseparable to ensure the balance of the monument, conceived as a whole. The construction of the monument was a true technical feat, a masterpiece of an artist who was not only a virtuoso sculptor.
Winged Victory of Samothrace's Architectural context
The sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace is installed in the very narrow valley of a torrent. The buildings reserved for the ceremonies of the Mysteries occupied all the bottom of the valley. From the IIIrd century B.C., the heights on both sides are fitted out, to accommodate on the east a monumental entry, on the west a very long portico to shelter the pilgrims (the stoa) and important offerings.
The monument of Victory was located at the southern end of the terrace of the portico, in a rectangular space dug into the side of the hill, set back and raised above the theater; facing north, it overlooked the entire sanctuary. In 1863 Champoiseau described and drew the monument surrounded on three sides by a tuff limestone wall, and set on a limestone step.
All that remains now of this enclosure are the foundations of the walls, surrounded at the bottom and on the sides by walls supporting the land of the hill. The enclosure itself measures 13.40 m wide by 9.55 m long, and we know from the surveys made by Hauser in 1876 that the Victory was placed at an angle of 14° 5 in relation to the back wall.
This arrangement emphasizes the left side of the statue for the observer coming from the terrace, which explains why the carving work is much more elaborate on this side than on the other. Large natural rocks are visible in the front part of the space. The supporting walls of the land have been restored and the place of the monument artificially indicated.
The very ruined complex has given rise to various interpretations. K. Lehmann hypothesized that the monument was placed in the basin of an open-air fountain, with water games on the large rocks arranged for this purpose.
But they could not have been part of the original layout, since the palm of the right hand was found under one of them: Charbonneau thought that they came from a later natural landslide. The fountain hypothesis has been abandoned since the excavations of J. McCredie and B. Wescoat demonstrated that there was no water supply to the enclosure.
Recent research has not determined the exact nature of the architectural framework of the Victory, more than 500 blocks of which were reused in a Byzantine building at the other end of the west hill. Fragments of colored plaster and some elements of architectural decoration in terracotta were found in the enclosure.
Two 3D reconstructions have been proposed by B. Wescoat: either low walls forming a peribolus around the monument in the open air, or a covered building with columns and a pediment of the naikos type. The excellent state of preservation of the surface of the sculpture suggests that it was not left in the open air for long.
The 3D reconstruction of the entire sanctuary also showed that the statue of Victory was oriented along the axis of the torrent, which constituted the only unobstructed view of the sanctuary: the monument was thus clearly visible from the bottom of the valley.
Another hypothesis has been proposed by Professor Jean Richer, who has pointed out that the ship on which the statue is placed represents the constellation of the Ship Argo:
the ship's prow and the statue had been deliberately placed at an angle, within the important Sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace, so that the Victory was looking in the direction of the north: according to Jean Richer, this direction shows the path that leads to the door of the gods identified with Mount Hemos, and thus alludes to a very spiritual victory;
for, in this orientation, the momentum and the gaze of the statue ended exactly at the northeast corner of the Anaktoron, seat of the Small Mysteries, where the initiation was given. This corner was thus the most sacred of the building.
Function, date and style of Winged Victory of Samothrace
In the sanctuary of the Great Gods of Samothrace, as in all the great pan-Hellenic sanctuaries, the faithful offered very many ex-votos, from the most modest to the most sumptuous according to their wealth. It was a way to honor the gods and to thank them for their benefits.
In addition to a promise of better spiritual life, the Cabir gods, among which the Dioscuri, were reputed to ensure their protection to those who were initiated in their Mysteries if they were in danger on the sea and in combat. To invoke them allowed to be saved from the shipwreck and to obtain the victory. In this context, a representation of Victory resting on a ship's bow can be interpreted as an offering to thank the Great Gods following an important naval victory.
Several large naval offerings are known in the 3rd century B.C. in the Greek world, such as the "monument of the bulls" in Delos, the naval monument of the agora in Cyrene and in Samothrace itself, the Neôrion, (no. 6 on the plan), which housed a ship of about twenty meters long. In Rhodes, an offering of the same type as the Samothrace base, but smaller, was found in the sanctuary of Athena at the top of the acropolis of Lindos.
The dedication inscription of the Victory monument has not been found. Archaeologists are reduced to hypotheses to define the historical context and to determine the naval victory justifying the erection of such an important ex-voto. The difficulty lies in the fact that in the second and first centuries B.C., naval battles for dominance of the Aegean Sea were very numerous, first pitting the Antigonids and their Seleucid allies against the Lagids, then the Seleucids against the Rhodians and Pergamum.
The Austrian archaeologists consider at first that the monument of Samothrace is the one represented on the tetradrachm of Demetrios Poliorcete. They conclude that, like the coin, it celebrates his victory against Ptolemy I at the battle of Salamis of Cyprus in 306 BC. According to Benndorf, the Victory of Samothrace thus dates from the last years of the fourth century B.C. and may have been sculpted by a pupil of the sculptor Scopas.
The construction of the monument was then linked to the battle of Cos (c. 262-255 BC), during which the Macedonian king Antigonus II Gonatas won over the Lagids, allies of Athens and Sparta during the Christian-Monidian war. It is also attributed to Antigonus Gonatas the dedication, on the same occasion, of his flagship in the "monument of bulls" in Delos.
The material of the base of the Victory of Samothrace was identified as early as 1905 as marble from the quarries of Lartos in Rhodes. The same is true of the small fragment found in 1891 by Champoiseau in the monument enclosure at Samothrace, bearing the end of an engraved name: ...Σ ΡΟΔΙΟΣ / ...S RHODIOS.
In 1931, Hermann Thiersch restored the name of the sculptor "Pythocritos son of Timocharis of Rhodes", active around 210-165 BC, and he is convinced that the fragment belongs to the ship-shaped base: he therefore makes this sculptor the author of the Victory of Samothrace.
According to him, the monument was ordered by the Rhodians, allied to the kingdom of Pergamon against Antiochos III, after their victory in the naval battles of Sidè and Myonnésos, on the Ionian coast, in 190 BC. The final victory against the Seleucid occurred in 189 BC at the battle of Magnesia of Sipyl.
The monument would thus have been set up in Samothrace shortly after this date. Jean Charbonneaux also admits the historical link uniting the Victory of Samothrace to the battles of Myonnésos and Magnesia, and makes of it the dedication of king Eumène II.
Based on the same arguments, Nathan Badoud in 2018 favors the conflict which opposed a little earlier the Rhodians and the king of Pergamon to the king of Macedonia Philip V. The Rhodians were first defeated at the naval battle of Ladé in 202 BC, then Philip V was defeated at sea by the two allies at the battle of Chios in 201 BC.
The hostilities persisting, Rhodes and Pergamon call the Roman Republic in reinforcement, and the general Flamininus crushes the Macedonian army in Thessaly at the battle of Cynoscephales. The Rhodians would have dedicated the monument of the Victory after this date, for their victory in Chios.
Other scholars have considered later occasions: the Roman victory at Pydna in 169 BC over Perseus, or a dedication of the kingdom of Pergamum on the same occasion, or the victory of Pergamum and Rhodes over Prusias II of Bithynia in 154 BC.
Style and workshop
Although the affiliation of the fragment with the remains of the name of a Rhodian at the base of the Victory was very quickly disputed because of its small size, the whole monument remained attributed to the Rhodian school of sculpture. Above all, this put an end to earlier hesitations about the style of the statue.
In 1955 Margarete Bieber made it a major figure of the "Rhodian school" and of the "Hellenistic baroque", next to the frieze of the Gigantomachy of the Great Altar of Pergamon, characterized by the strength of the attitudes, the virtuosity of the draperies and the expressiveness of the figures.
This style continued in Rhodes until the Roman period in complex and monumental creations such as the Laocoon group or the statues of Sperlonga attributed to or signed by Rhodian sculptors.
The cutting of the blocks of the base and the sculpture of the statue are not of the same competence. The two parts of the monument were designed together, but produced by two different workshops . The marble base of Lartos was certainly made in Rhodes, where parallels exist.
On the other hand, the Rhodian sculpture in large marble is of high quality, without being exceptional for its time, but one does not find parallels for the virtuosity of the Victory, which remains outstanding. The sculptor could also have come from elsewhere, as was common in the ancient Greek world for great artists.
The Victory of Samothrace is a grandiose adaptation of the walking statue of Athena-Niké from the Cyrene monument: the sculptor added wings, stretched the left leg to express flight, and modified the arrangement of the mantle with the flap floating at the back.
In this way, he gave the Samothrace statue a dynamic that brought it closer to the figures of the Gigantomachy of the Pergamon altar, conceived shortly after in the same spirit.