Nike of Samothrace: Civilization’s Beacon

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Nike of Samothrace

Nike of Samothrace, c.220-190 BC.

The Nike (Winged Victory) of Samothrace forms the ideal entrance to an art museum, and thus the ideal first post for this blog.

I love how Prof. Richard Brettell explains the Nike of Samothrace in his lectures “Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre,” from The Teaching Company (if you’ve never heard of The Teaching Company, STOP READING NOW and go to their website – it will enrich your life!). As Brettell notes, she stands atop the steps as you enter the Louvre, so you have to pass her in order to reach the galleries. She strides forward, upright and strong and supple, showing the promise of art and civilization. This is a place, she announces, of faith in the human spirit.

Such amazing power for a single work of art! Samothrace is just a tiny island in the Aegean Sea, and yet its Nike stands as symbol for the striving of all mankind. Originally, she would’ve been on the prow of a great ship, looking forward as she cut through the waves. The ocean – another great human theme. When I lived in Scotland, I spent a lot of time staring out at the North Sea, a vast, unknown deep that seems foreign, omnipotent, sometimes even scary. The sea is infinite and impersonal, yet humans dare to traverse its reach. Likewise, artists in all ages have confronted unknown depths – those of the mind.

Prof. Brettell has a neat idea about the Nike of Samothrace: her being at the museum’s entrance reminds us that the art of the past is important, that our own civilization needs this treasury of past creation. Why? Because creation is constant recreation. When we look at art, we don’t let it rest and belong only to the past. We ourselves are creators, in the midst of making a new, great civilization. (More on this in a future post.) The ideas of the past help us produce new ideas, new art, new views of the world. (More on this in my next post.)

This blog is all about how we can look at past art and, from it, create our new world. This creation is not a task for artists alone, but involves writers, composers, scholars, philosophers, and every person who creates ideas about the world in his/her mind. The Nike of Samothrace hails what we can create in the present age, going forward through the oceans.

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