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Winged Victory

This sculpture is predominantly known as The Winged Victory of Samothrace, as in Samothrace the Aegean island. You’ll also hear it called The Nike of Samothrace, since Nike (nee-kay) was the Ancient Greek goddess of victory. In this version she pronounces a naval triumph from the bow of a warship.

She dates to around 190 BC but we don’t know much about who commissioned her or who sculpted her. Even the historical naval battle she commemorates is debated. All that missing information is good in this case because it allows the sculpture speak for itself. For a second you really feel like she’s gently descending onto a ship’s prow, which is no small feat of illusion when you consider she’s solid marble. The ocean wind whipping her drapery is effective, too, because with a little imagination you’re transported to a breezy seaside just by looking at her. She was originally set in a pool or fountain to heighten these dramatic effects.

Personally, I love this sculpture because of my maternal grandmother. Not because she loved it, I don’t know that she did or didn’t. It’s because for all of her adult life she really imbibed the ‘look good—feel good’ idea. In other words, she loved to dress up. It was such a part of her that when I delivered her eulogy at graveside I knew I had to mention it but had trouble finding words that didn’t sound trivial. What I finally settled on went something like this: “even when her body was worn and her skin wrinkled with age, she always knew how to be beautiful.”

So now, looking at this sculpture, I remember my grandmother. Nike is worn down by age and weathered by exposure. In places she’s held together by modern interventions like rod and plaster. But despite all that, or largely because of it, she’s as beautiful as ever.

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