Monday, April 25, 2011

Sweet Nike of Samothrace, Enduring

In December of 2001, I visited the Louvre. The statue of Nike of Samothrace (known also as the Winged Victory) enthralled me. Over 10 feet tall, dating from about 190 BCE, she stands at the head of the sweeping Daru staircase. There was a brisk wind blowing up the stairs. The wind seemed to be responsible for pressing the folds of Nike’s garment against her body. Of course, this was nonsense since both her body and garment are marble. The wind is merely a device to heighten the experience for the viewer. For me, Nike was the highlight of the Louvre, if not all Paris. More than thirty years earlier, I had written a sonnet  dedicated to the great Hellenistic statue and the spirit she represents.
My first glimpse of the statue as I ascended the stairs was all I had hoped for and more. Thrilling, inspiring, overwhelming, there was no end of words to apply. I circled the statue in wordless admiration. I just couldn’t get enough of every angle. I circled slowly again and again in complete thrall. How long was I there? I don’t know. Eventually, I had to tear myself away so I could see more of the Louvre and its other treasures, but later, before I left the immense museum, I returned to the head of the Daru staircase and made several more enchanted circuits.
I wasn’t the only visitor circling Nike that afternoon. Many of the people I saw were also walking around her, looking at the thrust of the leg, the ripples of the fabric, the set of the shoulders and the angle of the back and wings. When most people look at sculpture, especially the greatest sculpture, they automatically walk around the art to view the work from different angles so they can really appreciate and understand it. Viewing sculpture is acknowledged to take effort and time to achieve the full experience. With sculpture, you simply have to see it from all sides to really see it. The image included here might be the “best” angle, but you’ll never know that for yourself unless you walk around it.
That being said, below is the sonnet I wrote 44 years ago. I was very young, just married, and it was written after my first visit to the Cloisters, which overlook the Hudson, the opening venue of the poem. Apologies for the quaint language; it still seems to fit.
To Nike of Samothrace

The sun was on the river bright today,
And golden was the sky and all below.
But verily, my thoughts were far away
In France and in the Louvre. They did go
To proudly powered Wing├Ęd Victory
With outstretched body arched into the wind.
No breath have I when of that stone I see
The smallest photograph. What kind
of Time has left the spirit and the flesh
But took away the Head from its high place?
So of all worldly grants that I could wish,
I wish that once I might have seen her face.
In triumph, beauty guiles eternally,
E’en so as sweet the smile of Victory.


Ilene Leslie Skeen
March 26, 1967


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