No Longer the ‘Pitcairn Nike’

A Minerva-Victoria from Cyrene

By: Irene Bald Romano

Originally Published in 1997

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Until about ten years ago, visitors to the University of Pennsylvania Museum were greeted at the top of the stairs leading to the Greek gallery by the striking half-scale marble statue of a god­dess clothed in swirling drapery (Figs. 1-3). The statue was loaned to the Museum in 1935 by its owner, Raymond Pitcairn. During its residence in the Museum, Rhys Carpenter, the eminent specialist in Greek sculpture, studied the statue and argued that it was a Roman copy of the winged, chryselephantine (gold and ivory) Nike, the Greek personification of Victory, that stood on the hand of the 5th century BC cult statue in the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens (Carpenter 1953-54, 1959). This colossal Athena Parthenos had been made by the famous Greek sculptor Pheidias (see Fig. 8).

As a result of Carpenter’s identification, the statue became well known in the archaeological litera­ture as the “Pitcairn Nike” and has been cited in many handbooks on Greek sculpture as a copy of the Pheidian Nike. The 1986 transfer of the statue to Raymond Pitcairn former home, now the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania (see box at end of article), prompted a reassessment of the “Pitcairn Nike” and has produced new information that alters the identification of the statue and brings more clearly into focus its ori­gins and use.

Early History of the Piece

The statue was purchased by Pitcairn in 1935 from a dealer in Paris, Lucien Demote. We know From a drawing of the statue in a 1910 French publication (Reinach 1910:172, no. 7) that it was previously owned by a French collector near Paris with the curious name of Leo Nardus. When Demotte sold the statue to Pitcairn, he told Pitcairn that the statue had come from “the ruins of Cyrene.” The connection with the impor­tant ancient site of Cyrene, located in modem Libya, was an intriguing one, since the University of Penn­sylvania Museum under the direction of Donald White excavated in Cyrene Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone from 1969 to 1981 (White 1992).

There are several major early collections of well-published sculpture from Cyrene. The British Museum’s collection is the result of the mission it spon­sored to the site in 1860. The Louvre and other private French collections have pieces acquired from the pillag­ing of sites in the region in 1848 by the French consul in Benghazi, M. Vanier de Bnurville. If indeed the stat­ue in the Glencairn Museum comes from Cyrene, it may have been collected during the depredations of Battier de Bnurville or have come through Constantin­ople from the Turks who controlled the region until 1911. But that information from dealers should be accepted unchallenged is anathema to the scholar of ancient  art. It took a thorough examination of the statue to determine who she is and that the provenience of Cyrene given by Demote is, in fact, almost certainly accurate.

The Statue Today

The 1.12 meter high statue represents a female wearing a peplos (heavy woolen garment) with a deep overfold where it has been hitched and belted around her waist, and an aegis (goat skin) over her back with a head of the Gorgon, Medusa, at the front of the neck (Fig. 4). The drapery is pressed against her legs and is being blown backward as the figure alights with knees slightly bent and her body inclined forward. The figure, as it is preserved, is made from a single block of marble.

Stable isotopic analysis (see box) at the Univer silty of Georgia’s Department of Geology laboratory indi­cates that the marble is Parian lychnites from the mines on the Greek island of Paros. This is a fine white marble highly prized and widely exported throughout the Greek and Roman periods. The head, arms, and feet (Fig. 5) would have been made of separately carved pieces of marble, and an additional block would have been attached at the lower back to complete the sweep of the drapery, to serve as a counterweight to the for­ward thrust of the statue, and to anchor the statue to its plinth.

The left arm, as deduced from the surviving shoulder and fragment of the underarm, was raised, probably holding an object (Fig. 6). It can be surmised from traces of two small iron corrosion products on the left breast and near the belt that the object, possibly a gilded bronze garland, was held diagonally across the front of the body. The right arm was at least slightly raised. Carpenter interpreted shallow cuttings in the backs of the shoulders as evidence that the figure had separately attached wings, hut close examination makes it clear that these cuttings are for dowels to secure the separately attached marble arms. The figure is, thus, wingless.

Who was She?

The statue’s garb of peplos and aegis and the Gorgon’s head or Gorgoneion on her breast are features that contemporary viewers would have recognized as belonging to Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom. The alighting pose and swirling drapery, on the other hand, would have been seen as characteristics of Nike, person­ification of Victory. Together, these attributes identify the figure as a cambinatian of Athena and Nike or, more accurately, the Roman manifestation of the composite goddess, Minerva-Victoria.

Such a conflation of the characteristics of Athena with elements of Nike is a specifically Roman concept. There are details of the Glencairn statue which are very un-Greek and so make it unlikety to be a a copy of a Greek work, as Carpenter proposed. For example, the aegis is worn draped over the back, while in the 5th century BC it would have been worn as a bib over the chest. Also the sculptor has “misinterpreted,” perhaps intentionally with iconographic significance, the nature of the peplos, a single length of wool which was wrapped around the body beneath the armpits, pinned at the shoul­ders, and belted with an opening on one side of the body.

The sculptor of this statue has left no side opening and has added fine wavy incisions on the lower legs and over the chest as if to suggest the crinkly folds produced by a garment such as a chiton, finer and lighter in weight than the peplos. Certainty, the sculptor of the Minerva-Victoria is hark­ing back to the style of the 5th century 13C Classical peri­od and to the work of Pheidian and the sculptures of the period of the Parthenon; but rather than copying a sin­gle work of that period, he has produced a uniquely Roman Glassicizing creation.

Rays Carpenter’s assumption that the “Pitcairn Nike” represents a copy of the Pheidian Nike is without basis and can be refuted on several grounds. First and most importantly, the Nike that stood on the hand of the Pheidian Athena Parthenos (Fig. 8), as far as we can tell from literary descriptions, Roman copies, and depic Lions on coins and in relief sculpture, was winged and did not appear in the guise of Athena (Leipen 1971).

Second, Carpenter’s assertion that the sculptor rendered the head, arms, and feet of the Glencairn stat­ue in a substance other than marble (e.g., alabaster and/or stucco) to imitate the ivory flesh of the Pheidian Nike is incorrect; the exposed area beneath the arms shows that the artist was content to show the flesh in marble. Also, it is not atypical in the Roman period for sculptors of large-scale works to use the “piecing” tech­nique. In this case, because Parian marble was expensive in antiquity and would, for the most part, have been extracted from the “lychnites” mine in relatively small blocks, the sculptor was being economical in adding marble pieces to the statue for any parts which would have projected beyond the outlines or planes of a stan­dard-sized quarry btock, i.e., the head, arms, and feet (Kane 1988:133; Kane and Carrier 1988:202). Small fragments or scraps of Parian marble, perhaps cut away from another block, would likely have been used to complete the Minerva-Victoria.

Where Did She Come From?

Atthough representations of a winged Minerva-Victoria appear on Roman coins (chiefly on issues of emperors of the late 2nd/early 3rd century ADC), on a few lamps, and in terracotta fig­urines, sculptural images of this Roman deity are relatively rare. Only six other sculptural exam­ples can be cited and it is signif­icant that three of these come from North African sites, from Cyrene or nearby (Fig. 9) and from Bull Regia in ancient Nurnidia (modern Tunisia) (see Gulaki 1981:177-92 for some examples). It may have been in these regions, where associa­tions of the winged Minerva with the Phoenician goddess Anat or Astarte were strong, that Minerva-Victoria would have found a prominent position (Charles-Picard 1984). The wingless Minerva-Victoria type is also known in the Roman period, including two examples documented from the site of Cyrene (Gulaki 1981:224, fig. 205; 222, fig. 95).

Cyrene was founded by Greek cotonists from the island of Thera in 631 BBC. As the chief city of the Libyan Pentapolis (“Region of Five Gities”), it main­tained a high degree of Greek cultural life until the Arab invasions of the 7th century AD. Cyrene flourished under the control of the Greek dynasty of the Ptolemies of Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Along with the rest of Cyrenaica, Cyrene was bequeathed to Rome by Ptolemy Physcon in 155 BC and was inherited upon the death of that Ptolemy’s son in 96 BC. Cyrene’s position 8 miles from the Mediterranean Sea on a well-watered expanse of fertile land gave it importance as a provider of grain and olives for the Roman Empire. Archaeologically, the Roman period is particularly well documented at Cyrene, with major architectural accom­ptishments and one of the richest stores of Roman sculpture in the Roman provinces.

The sculptural corpus of Cyrene has been par­ticularly well studied by American and British scholars and, thus, it is possible to examine the Pitcairn Minerva-Victoria with the comparative material in mind. Based on work Susan Kane has done on the sculptures from the Demeter and Mersephone Sanctuary at Cyrene, for example, it is possible to conclude that the Minerva-Victoria bears various technological characteristics of sculptural works manufactured at Cyrene. For example, extensive use of the piecing technique is a hallmark of the statues found at the site, which had no local source of marble and thus used its imported supplies economi­cally (Kane 1988:133; Kane and Carrier 1988: 202). The 1.12 meter preserved height of the statue would put her in a size category that is common at Cyrene, especially for works of the 2nd century AD (Kane and Carrier 1988).

There are other stylistic traits of the Minerva-Victoria that closely parallel 2nd century AD works from Cyrene. For example, the fine incisions on the peplos over the chest and legs to indicate the folds of a lighter, crinkly gar­ment is also seen on several sculptures excavated at Cyrene (see MacDonald 1976 for one example from the Demeter and Persephone Sanctuary). (In the case of the Glencairn statue the addition of these fine folds may have been another iconographic clue to the dual nature of the deity, i.e., a goddess clothed in the peplos of Athena but one with the texture and movement of the chiton of Nike.) The rather heavy thighs of the Minerva-Victoria seem to be characteristic of female statues from the site (e.g., Paribeni 1959: no. 402). And a specific match can be found at Cyrene for the Gorgoneion at the neck of the Pitcairn Minerva-Victoria in a Gorgon’s head from an Athena statue (Fig. 10).

From the point of view of iconography there seems to have been much interest at Cyrene in female figures clothed in peplai, especially in the period of the late 1st and 2nd centuries AD (Paribeni 1959: nos. 65-70, 78-80). Glassicizing style and iconography hark­ ing back to the art of the 5th century BC, especially Athenian art, were very popular throughout the Medi­terranean in the 2nd century AD. In the Antonine period (AD 138-192) Cyrene was an active member of the Panhellenion League based in Athens, and it is especial­ly during this time that Attic (named for the region of Athens) styles and iconography were in vogue (Kane 1988:134, 136-37). For example, it is in this period that the Temple of Zeus was reconstructed at Cyrene and that an acralithic statue (appendages and body made of different materials: in this case, marble for the flesh parts and plaster for the drapery) copied after Pheidias’s chryselephantine Olympian Zeus was installed as the cult image (Goodchild, Reynolds, and Herington 1958). In fact, after the Jewish Revolt of AD 115 and up to the end of the 2nd century Cyrene experienced a period of urban renewal with accompanying revival of activities of all kinds.

How Was She Used?

If the Minerva-Victoria statue is from Cyrene, where might it have stood and how would it have been used? The dangling feet, the alighting pose, and forward incline of the body suggest that the statue was posi­tioned up high where the sweep of the drapery and the S-shaped curve of the body could be appreciated. One likely use for the statue is as an acraterion, a decorative sculpture crowning the roof of a temple (Fig. 11). The obvious temple at Cyrene to examine as a possible home for the statue is the Temple of Zeus mentioned above, recon­structed in the very period the Minerva-Victoria is assigned to, and using Classical models for both the architecture and the sculpture. Unfortunately, the deliberate and complete destruction of that temple and its acrolithic cult image in the late antique period does not correspond with the nearly perfect state of preserva­tion of the marble body of the Minerva-Victoria. In fact, unless specific evidence can he found (i.e., a plinth block or a matching statue) to tink this statue with a particular Cyrenean temple, it would be only speculation to assign it to one.

There is also the possibility that the Minerva-Victoria was a part of a large-scale free-standing com­memorative monument, perhaps a monument set up in honor of a Roman military victory (Fig. 12). Though Cyrene was a city replete with monuments, it is not as yet possible to pinpoint a commemorative monument of which the statue might have been a part. Further research at Cyrene and in the major Cyrenean collec­tions might still yield clues to unlock the mystery of the Minerva-Victoria’s original location.

Ink the meantime, however, the stylistic, icono­graphic, and technical detective work that the statue’s move to the Glencairn stimulated has given us a new identification for this goddess, and has led us to ponder what part she might have played in Cyrene’s 2nd centu­ry urban revival.


The author wishes to gratefully acknowledge Susan Kane, Norman Herz, Susan Walker, and Donald White for sharing their knowledge about Cyrenc, its sculpture and marble resources. I am also grateful to the Gtencairn Museum and its staff for their generous support of my research on this statue. A full publication of the Minerva-Victoria will be a part of the Catalogue of the Classical Collections of the Gtencairn Museum, authored by David G. Romano and Irene B. Romano (forthcoming, 1998).

The Glencairn Museum

The Glencairn Museum is located to the northeast of Philadelphia in the pic­turesque hamlet of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. The Museum’s holdings represent the amalga­mated collections of Raymond Pitcairn (1885– 1966) and of the Academy of the New Church, an academic institution founded in Phila­delphia in 1876 by followers of the Sweden­borgian faith and moved to Bryn Athyn in 1897.

The Romanesque castle of Glencairn was built by Raymond Pitcairn (Fig. 13), a charismatic lawyer/businessman–turned archi­tect, master-builder of the Bryn Athyn Cathe­dral, and patron of the Swedenborgian Church. He planned it as a home for his family of eight children and as a “little castle for the collec­tion,” as he himself described it in a 1926 let­ter. The collection is that which Pitcairn amassed in the 1920s and 1930s of medieval stained glass, architectural fragments and sculpture, tapestries, treasury arts, manu – scripts, and weaponry—a collection said to be unique and among the finest in the world (Fig. 14). lie focused his collecting interests on French 12th and 13th century material and chose pieces whose Old Testament themes or style might serve as inspiration for the artists working under his direction on the Cathedral and on his home (Fig. 15). Although his medieval collection forms the core of the Glencairn Museum’s holdings, Raymond Pitcairn also made important purchases of Greek, Roman, and Cypriot artifacts, includ­ing over 250 pieces of Classical jewelry, and Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Asian art. Glen-cairn was bequeathed in 1979 to the Academy of the New Church by Raymond Pitcairn’s widow and opened to the pubtic as the Glencairn Museum in 1982.

Cite This Article

Romano, Irene Bald. "No Longer the ‘Pitcairn Nike’." Expedition Magazine 39, no. 3 (November, 1997): -. Accessed February 23, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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