Nike is the Greek word for victory, and also the name of the ancient winged personification of victory, who would appear in battle at the decisive moment and honor the victor with a wreath or palm frond. As with the famous Hellenistic Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre, she was usually depicted striding forward as if alighting from the air. This Nike has the traditional gesture, but not the traditional clothing. She wears a very short chiton, barely reaching her thighs. In ancient examples, the chiton was ankle length, and the long skirt often clung to the legs and fluttered behind to suggest her rapid movement into the fray. Given that there is evidence of later recarving on this figure, it is quite likely that what had originally been a form-hugging long skirt was restored at some point as bare legs. If this is true, the short skirt may be the vestige of what we often see in ancient statuary, a heavy fold of drapery created by cinching the chiton around the waist.
Stylistic comparisons suggest an origin in the fifth or sixth century near Oxhyrynchus in Byzantine Egypt. The original function of this sculpture is revealed by the treatment of its top surface. Its maker provided it with a circular groove and central hole, a design which was commonly used to mount a stone table top. Egypt has a long tradition of offering tables in funerary contexts, so it is possible that this Nike, who has neither wreath nor palm, is actually holding up the offerings to the dead on top of the table. If so, she is an example of the familiar re-purposing of a pagan religious image in a Christian context, showing Nike bringing victory, not in the battlefield, but in the afterlife.
G. Vikan, J. Hanson
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 22, no. 26.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 15, no. 30.
K. Wessel, Koptische Kunst; die Spätantike in Ägypten, 1 ed. (Recklinghausen, 1963), 92, fig. 69.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 9, no. 29, pl. 29.
G. Vikan, Catalogue of the Sculpture in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection from the Ptolemaic Period to the Renaissance, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Washington, D.C., 1995), 48-51, no. 19, pl. 19 A-C.
Purchased from the Byzantine Institute Cairo by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, June 1943.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.