Do I need to point out the extraordinary beauty of this ancient statue?
I firmly believe that such works speak for themselves; they are eloquent as spiritual expressions and proud reminders of human achievement.
People often talk about the greatness of Ancient Greece. Why the Greeks, why then and why there? These are big questions by themselves. Another question is, indeed, how the Greek world remains so broadly connected to modern western culture. What is the influence of the Greeks and of their art on the modern perception of the human body and its beauty? Of course, it would be naive, even perilous, to attempt an answer without taking in the very long European tradition of the rediscovery – appreciation, perception, understanding, re-shaping and so on – of Greek antiquity, through the medieval, post-medieval and modern western way(s) of thinking. This is a highly relevant topic for anyone wanting to approach the idea of beauty and its perception through time – but analysing it is not what’s on my mind at the moment. I might come back to that at some point soon.
So, before you read on, let’s take a minute to contemplate the sculpture, its beauty, excellent quality, perfect execution and last but not least the emotion it conveys, in spite of the long-lost head, arms and legs.
What we are looking at is an amazing fourth century BC statue of a flying Nike (Victory). It once functioned as decoration high up on the Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea in Arcadia, the central region of the Peloponnese in southern Greece. Today, it is exhibited in the surprisingly beautiful local museum, renovated and re-opened to the public in 2013, together with several other sculptures, statues, offerings, clay vessels and figurines. In combination, they reveal the region’s ancient history.
The place itself is a typical small Greek village. A central parish church next to its medieval counterpart is surrounded by one and two-storey residential houses. A bakery, a grocery store and a coffee shop are all scattered next to the archaeological site and the new museum.
In ancient times, Tegea, at the edge of Arcadia, the most remote and mountainous part of the peninsula, controlled some natural wealth, with marble quarries in its vicinity, as well as plains and low hills providing acceptable conditions for cultivation and for a largely pastoral economy. It was also situated in quite a favourable position near the main routes of communication between the northern (Argos, Corinth and the Isthmus) and southern (Sparta) parts of the Peloponnese. By the seventh century BC, Tegea passed through the process of synoecism (synoikismos, literally ‘dwelling together’ – a phenomenon very common to all Greek states, namely the political unification of an area, with the inhabitants of scattered villages and hamlets joining forces by moving to a newly-formed central city) and the creation of a well-organized polis (city-state), defined by an autonomous economy, an urban centre, sanctuaries, temples, festivals and local myths, in other words, the typical features of an ancient Greek urban community and the ways it defined its identity. Hence, by the fourth century BC, Tegea was already a well-developed city-state, both socially and architecturally. An organized polity, engaged in shifting relations with its Arcadian and Laconian (Spartan) neighbours, its focus was a fortified city.
Let us return to this beautiful Nike and the temple she adorned.
Besides the material evidence, the fragmented archaeological remains and the artworks themselves, ancient Greek and Roman writers provide important information about the total destruction of Tegea’s main temple by fire in 395 BC, and its reconstruction during the following decades. Pausanias, the famous second century AD traveller and writer, tells us that “the temple at Tegea far surpasses all other temples in the Peloponnese both in size and style”. Pausanias is mistaken about the size (the Temple of Zeus at Olympia was bigger) but certainly, the Temple at Tegea was one of the most remarkable sacred buildings of the Greek world. Its exquisite sculptural decoration, both figural and architectural, attests to superior workmanship. All the decorative details are rich and of very high quality and exemplify the most advanced trends of fourth century BC art and architecture.
Modern scholars have much debated the date and style of the building and its sculptural decoration. However, based on stylistic grounds and the ancient literary sources, we can now be very certain of the following points. The temple was most likely constructed after the middle of the fourth century BC, namely between 345 and 335 BC. Its avant-garde features introduced something new to the traditional architectural forms, and thus the entire structure was subsequently used as a model for other temples in the Peloponnese, e.g. the temple of Zeus at Nemea. And finally, Skopas, the famous Greek sculptor from the island of Paros, was commissioned to accomplish the entire project.
Skopas (or Scopas if you insist on Latin spellings), was from Paros in the Cyclades. Son of Aristandros (also a master sculptor), he was one of the greatest sculptors of his time (ca. 390-320 BC), credited with dozens of individual works and connected with numerous prestigious buildings. As literary sources tell us, he appears to have been an itinerant artist, very active in the Peloponnese, in the city of Thebes (Central Greece), and on the west coast of Asia Minor, and unlike his contemporary and rival Praxiteles (of Athens), he was constantly travelling back and forth across the Aegean to supervise multiple projects. Around 350 BC, he participated in the sculptural decoration of the tomb of Mausolus, the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (or Halikarnassos, present Bodrum in western Turkey), which was later listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. His artistic skills are nowadays well known through a small number of original statues and a larger one of Roman copies of his lost originals.
The Tegea Nike, even if we consider her 'just' a piece of architectural sculpture, demonstrates just how masterful the works of Skopas were (and are). She strides forward, her right leg breaking through the opening of her skirt. Her right arm was originally held high, while the left was held out and away from her body. The missing head was turned to her left. Thus, her pose is quite complex and extremely dynamic, typical features of Skopas’s work. In other words, we are looking at a superb three-dimensional figure, depicted in full motion as if descending from the skies to the top of the temple.
She also shows a lot of her body. In contrast to prevalent male nudity, women in ancient Greek art are usually covered with clothing. I guess that was the 'appropriate beauty' for women in a society that tried to 'civilise' them by keeping them covered up. Their garments protected them from any compulsive attention - as beauty is compelling, too - and it assured their social standing as wives, mothers, widows - and daughters preparing for those roles.
Of course, there are a number of examples where women are shown wearing clothes without this making any difference whatsoever. In most of these cases, several parts of the body are exposed, while the textiles are so thin and draped so transparently that almost nothing remains hidden. Excluding Aphrodite, the only goddess regularly shown naked in Greek art (from ca.360 BC onwards), sensual Nymphs, furious Maenads, battling Amazons and vigorous Nikes were usually depicted with their bodies exposed in this manner, always in full action or motion. These figures were powerful and erotic demi-goddesses, perceived and portrayed as desirable sexual prey, sometimes clearly as eventual victims, without carrying the risk to society that depicting ‘respectable’ females in such a way would have implied. As in our sculpture from Tegea, their disordered clothing reveals glimpses of their naked flesh, the transparent tissues emphasize breasts, thighs and knees, and thus the figures manifest their inner energy, which can be essentially alluring, maybe defensive – and also dangerous.
Transforming the marble into warm, living flesh and flowing drapery is one of the great achievements of ancient Greek sculpture. Skopas and his contemporary prominent artists, following the groundwork laid by their predecessors, invented a prevailing notion of the human body as we now understand or see it. Along with the intellectuals of their era, they invented the concept of the human condition, and moreover the idea of beauty, and not only did they create amazing things - they were also constantly discussing and debating these issues. Still today, in modern ‘western’ culture, we are bonded to this legacy of antiquity.
This is the significance of our Nike and of Greek sculptures generally: they were created more than two millennia ago, they were then forgotten, rediscovered and revived and finally, through their long-lasting presence and manifold echoes, they illustrate how relevant such Classical artworks and the culture that produced them are to modern perceptions and discourses about beauty.
You can see Skopas's Nike at Tegea, along with many other fascinating works of art, on Peter Sommer Travels' Exploring the Peloponnese tour, and other masterpieces of ancient art on many of our other itineraries, including famous ones such as the Vatican Ariadne on Exploring Rome, the Motya Charioteer on Exploring Sicily, the Hermes of Praxiteles in Olympia, also part of Exploring the Peloponnese, or countless masterpieces in the Acropolis Museum during Easter in Athens, as well as lesser-known ones, like the Archaic sculptures of Miletus on Cruising to Ephesus, the treasures of Samos on Cruising the Dodecanese or the dazzling Bronze Age fresco paintings of the Minoans on Exploring Crete. There's more than that, and we'd love to share it all with you!