Prowess and Protection: A Cultic Analysis of the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” in Ancient Greece
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CitationPruski, Sarah. 2019. Prowess and Protection: A Cultic Analysis of the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” in Ancient Greece. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractThe ancient Greek mystery cult and its sanctuary complex dedicated to the Theoi Megaloi or “Great Gods” on the remote Aegean island of Samothrace functioned as the original setting for one of the most dramatic, recognizable, and studied masterpieces of Hellenistic sculpture: the second-century B.C.E. “Winged Victory of Samothrace.” However, the monument’s modern iconic grandeur often overshadows a more complete account of the historical, religious, and geophysical contexts for her design and installation than has usually been rendered, all of which would enhance more nuanced possible interpretations of her role within the Samothracian sanctuary than are known. What were the original intentions of the monument’s dedicant and sculptor? What was an initiate’s experience of the monument following its installation within the Sanctuary of the Great Gods at Samothrace and how, therefore, could it have been interpreted in situ? This work argues that the dedicant and sculptor of the monument intended to portray the goddess Nikē in several ways that would be recognized by Hellenistic-era initiates and would be deeply meaningful to them: first, that Nikē was representative of decisive naval prowess and triumph congruent with her historical iconography and the nature of ancient victory monuments; second, that Nikē’s portrayal as the completion of her stone ship’s vertical axis and topographical positioning at Samothrace may indicate her sculptor’s intent to mirror and complete the vertical axis of the larger “ship”: the island itself, thus invoking for the initiate the notion that Samothrace was a kind of ship; and finally, that Nikē’s iconographic portrayal as an indicator of assured naval victory could be interpreted by initiates as a literal triumph over the risk of drowning, simply by virtue of prevailing in battle at sea.
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