Essay on the World of Sculpture: Analysis of Hellenistic Period

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The scope of variety within the world of sculpture is profoundly oceanic. The rich domain of history, culture, appearance, and overall styles all differ substantially, evoking different sentiments and emotions. The sculptures that derive from different cultures all speak different volumes, but sculptures from Greek culture, in particular, are undeniably breathtaking due to their realism and vivid, lifelike detail. The Greek sculptures are nothing short of staggering beauty and the sculpture of the goddess Nike of Samothrace's “winged victory” is no exception.

The white marble statue of Nike stands firm on the of ship against the strong winds of a storm. Her posture is bold and fierce in windswept form. Her body appears to be moving in multiple directions simultaneously, as her abdomen is torqued, her torso is lifted up, her leg is striding forward while her feathered wings are fully spread back in true goddess form as if she is in flight or in descension from the heavens. One can almost feel the wind whipping and swirling around her body, pulling her drapery from her. The expertly crafted drapes of her tunic swaddle her blooming body, so fully enveloped against her as if she is completely saturated by the splashes of the sea. Laid bare and susceptible to the war of the storm, her posture remains unphased. She hovers gracefully and tranquilly. She is a symbol, a messenger, wholly representative of true victory.

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The goddess Nike is more specifically a messenger of victory in Greek religion. The Greeks depicted concepts such as peace, fortune, vengeance, and justice as goddesses in art very early on, and Nike depicted as victory is one of the earliest of these incarnations first seen in Greek art from the Archaic period (sixth century BC). Her large, feathered wings allow her to soar across the earth to give victors an insignia of victory, a trophy or a crown. She will often carry a trumpet and blow in it to let her presence be known. In other appearances, she is seen carrying a palm branch, wreath, or Hermes staff depicting her as a messenger. Nike can be clearly seen in Greek art erecting a trophy or hovering over the victor in a competition. She is seen in many forms— statues, vessels, coins, or bronze figurines, but she is undoubtedly the most gloriously represented in this marble sculpture. There have been reconstructions of what this sculpture would have originally looked like that depict her as an actual herald with a horn. “It has been suggested that the Victory held a trumpet, a wreath, or a fillet in her right hand,” The Louvre explains. “However, the hand discovered in Samothrace in 1950 had an open palm and two outstretched fingers, suggesting that she was not holding anything and was simply holding her hand up in a gesture of greeting.”

Although this sculpture has attracted many since its discovery, the exact origins of the Winged Victory are not surely known. Archaeologists and art historians, however, have extensively studied the sculpture in order to determine its age and original intention. A French diplomat and amateur archaeologist named Charles Champoiseau was the one who unearthed the Winged Victory in April of 1863. Nike was found in an ancient temple. This temple was the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, an ancient temple complex on the island of Samothrace located in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of Thrace, in north-eastern Greece. Nike was not standing on an actual boat, she was standing on the prow of a statue of a stone ship that was around that temple complex. The temple faces in such an away that the predominant wind that blows off the coast seems to be the wind that was enlivening her drapery as she stood on the ship. Indeed, it must have been a very victorious sight in all of its original glory.

According to the Louvre, the piece was likely crafted by the people of Rhodes, a Greek island, in the early second century BCE to commemorate a victory in a sea battle. This means it was created at the heart of the Hellenistic period (323 BCE-31 CE). This ancient art movement is particularly known for its naturalistic and expressive extremes of emotion through anatomically accurate sculptures of men, women, gods and goddesses in motion. Like many other Hellenistic sculptures, the Winged Victory is admired for its realistic anatomy and its vivid portrayal of movement. The Hellenistic culture has studied and celebrated the body in movement and used it for a tremendous expressive force. To see how clear it is that Nike belongs to the Hellenistic period, all one has to do is study her movement. To demonstrate her body in motion, the artist positioned Nike in an asymmetrical stance. Known as contrapposto (“counterpoise”), this pose displays movement through the use of physics-based weight distribution and an S-shaped body. Another aspect that depicts movement is the billowing fabric draped across her voluptuous body. As Nike dramatically steps forward, her garment flows around her waist and wraps around her legs, fluttering back. According to the Louvre, this “highly theatrical presentation—combined with the goddess’s monumentality, wide wingspan, and the vigour of her forward-thrusting body—reinforces the reality of the scene”. Nike of Samothrace embodies the heart of Hellenistic sculpture.

During the Hellenistic period, there were many naval battles over control of the Aegean Sea between kingdoms inherited by the successors of Alexander the Great. As the island of Samothrace is in the northern Aegean Sea, the island was undoubtedly affected by these successors. The temple itself underwent intensive renovations when the Successors of Alexander the Great were constantly trying to surpass each other in generosity by beautifying the temple complex. Due to the prevalence of naval battles during the Hellenistic period and its taking place in the Aegean Sea where the island of Samothrace is located, there were several sea-inspired monuments in the temple. These included artistic columns, naval ships, and, of course, the Winged Victory. There were many new developments in naval architecture at this time which is likely what lead to a naval victory which the prow battleship base of Winged Victory is most likely commemorating. Unfortunately, there have been no dedicatory inscriptions discovered which would tell of the exact circumstances that caused the birth of the monument. So there is only one theory.

The Nike of Samothrace is one of the few surviving examples of original Hellenistic sculpture, and despite its incomplete survival, its representation of realistic human anatomy and lifelike movement reveals its mastery and genius of artistry during its Hellenistic time and so it will continue to be greatly admired. The nude female body revealed by the transparency of the wet drapery marks the end of the reserved, high classical style, now in its place — highly expressive, graphic, voluptuous and windswept energy full of decorative richness, fleshy volume and intensity of movement. Even if the historical events that surround its dedication can never be fully known, the Winged Victory is truly a masterwork of Hellenistic sculpture, and her presence will forever invoke a spirit of awe and victory.

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