The Winged Victory of Samothrace has such high-low appeal
Left: Louis Vuitton show that ended with the last model in front of the statue. Screen grab: Louis Vuitton. Right: The image on a Uniqlo T-shirt. Photo: Zhao Xiangji
When the final model of last month’s Louis Vuitton show came to the end of the runway (set in the Louvre Museum), she came face to face with one of the biggest treasures of the musée: the Winged Victory of Samothrace. She paused and looked at the imposing figure as if in silent worship. What stood before her was the Hellenistic sculpture of Nike—the Greek goddess, not the sneaker brand. Nearly 11,000 kilometres to the east of Paris, the image of the same headless and armless deity was seen on the front of a black, S$19.90 Uniqlo crew-neck T-shirt. The illustration, in a patina of pastels, is conceived by the British graphic designer Peter Saville, in conjunction with the Louvre. It also includes the location of the statue and two letters and four numerals that form the inventory number. Back in Paris, you can buy a good 18-cm reproduction of the goddess that’s patinated by hand for €119. An immeasurable distance away, at the online portal Lazada, you, too, can obtain a similar figurine, cast in resin, for S$35.74. The Winged Victory (the shorter name), it seems, is almost everywhere.
Discovered in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace, in the northern Aegean sea, this sculptured likeness of Nike (circa 200 B.C.) is considered one of the finest in the world for its realistic depiction of a body in motion as well as its attractive female proportions. Ironically, the sculptor is unknown. By most accounts, Nike is a winged goddess who flies around as the bestower of victory to those who win wars, as well as peaceful competition, such as athletic games. Although not shown in the statue, she is known to carry laurel wreaths to hand out to, naturally, victors, and bestowing on them the rewards that come with winning. Other than her ability to take to flight, she is also reputed to be a fast runner (the connection to that shoe company again!) and a talented charioteer (which makes her standing atop the prow of a boat in the Louvre rather odd), so good, in fact, she commanded Zeus’s cavalry as the chief charioteer.
Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors
No goddess of repute wasn’t connected to Zeus, the god of gods, the all-father, whose throne was in Olympus and whose personal logo is the thunder bolt. Nike was born to the Titan Pallas and the nymph Styx. In the ten-year Titanomachy, a war of egos that saw the Olympians battle the Titans, Styx sided with Zeus and was the first to dash to his aid. She presented him with Nike and her siblings to serve as allies. So pleased was Zeus with this unconditional readiness that he allowed them to use Mount Olympus as their permanent residence. Nike was allowed to remain by his side and receive his eternal protection. Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors (she remained unmarried). In fact, there is no mention of her looks unlike, say, Aphrodite, who, although a warrior goddess, was celebrated for her beauty, among many other attributes. Stephen Fry in Mythos, described her as “a face far more beautiful than creation has yet seen or will ever see again”. Nike did not enjoy such a tribute to her physical attributes, although the ancients did describe her as “trim-ankled”.
In the Winged Victory, the goddess is often admired for the draped dress on her forward-thrusting body, both captured with remarkable mastery. This version of Nike wears a chiton, a unisex garment of either linen or wool. Given the lightness in the depiction, linen is likely the fabric represented there. The chiton was mostly rectangular, and held in place and gathered at the shoulders by either stitches or pins. Since its length for women was usually longer than the wearer, the chiton was worn with a belt so that when the top part was pulled up to fall over the cinched waist, like a blouse, the length could be shortened. On the Winged Victory, an additional belt is secured under the bust to further secure the dress. The fabric, possibly because of the wind, gathered between the legs to expose unscandalously the left hip and leg. Around the waist, another garment could be discerned: a himation or a cloak, draped around the right hip and swept open, with a swathe of it caught in the wind behind. Unlike mortals of today, the gods of yore clearly didn’t need a stylist to work their fashion.