Illusions Woven in Fabric: Gender Aspects and the Sublime in Fifth Century Sculptured Female Victory Images
Victory won by men
in the Classical 'men's club' that was
'We found her unraveling the splendid shroud, and then she had to finish, willy nilly – finish, and show the big loom woven tight from bean to beam with cloth. She washed the shrouding clean as sun or moonlight.'
This poetic phrase in praise of Penelope's work, attained corporeality in Classical sculpture: in a relief dated to c. 420-410 BCE, shining, gleaming and flowing delicate 'fabric' enwraps the body of Nike, the goddess of victory (fig. 1), standing on the parapet surrounding her temple on the edge of the Acropolis.
Although this image has been named by some 'Nike binding her sandal', she might also be unbinding it before entering the temple, as suggested by other scholars. Nike's image appears several times here, decorating a tropaion, leading bulls to sacrifice, and sacrificing in front of Athena (fig. 2).
Such depictions are symbolic of her character, uniting the ritual before departure for battle with the thanksgiving ritual after the victory, as Jeffrey Hurwit puts it: 'Victory is sought, assured, and won at once.' In the discussed statue, the goddess wears an Ionic chiton, which is much more flowing and delicate than the Doric one. The spectacular 'fabric' flows freely in undulating folds in a multitude of lines, movement and contrasting directions that are harmoniously united. The diaphanous and delicate drapery emphasizes the feminine body, revealing one shoulder. The masterly carved marble both radiates with light and casts projections of shadows, and the figure impresses the spectator with glamour and vitality. What lies behind that glamour, however, and what might the flowing folds conceal or reveal?
This discussion focuses on sculptured womanly images from the second half of the Fifth century BCE, especially the image of Nike, as well as other female akroteria images. The thesis of this article is that metaphoric illusions from two different aspects feature simultaneously in these images: from a modern-day social aspect we can perceive the images as an expression of the typical gender perceptions of the Classical world that used the female sex to elevate the male; while also reflecting aspects of the spiritual outlook and concept of the sublime held by the Ancients and rooted in their philosophical sources. Analysis of the works against the background of both the historical events of the time, and the spiritual outlook of the Fifth century BCE, reveals a duality between the seemingly contradictory gender and spiritual aspects in Classical art. In this essay I shall attempt to answer the following questions: First, what is the symbolism behind the flowing fabrics that characterize these images, and how do they serve as a metaphoric image? Second, why, in an overtly masculine society, the Athenian 'Men's Club', were goddesses whose femininity is extremely emphasized in their portrayals by the artists, chosen to symbolize a victory gained by men? And third, where does the balance lie between the socio-gender aspect and the philosophical-spiritual outlook?
The virility of the Riace warrior (fig. 3) stands in contrast to the Acropolis Nike: the bronze metal of the former could be conceived as a metaphor symbolizing the hero's strong body and soul, by which he defeats his enemies and protects the polis. His courageous and bold character is expressed in Hesiod's Bronze Men, the third race of heroes. Nike's marble sculpture, by contrast, reveals extremely delicately carved surfaces that reflect femininity. What were the mythological and literary parallels to the fabric that enwraps Nike that might have arisen in the minds of the Ancients? Does Nike's sculpted fabric reflect the significance of such material in reality? What is the symbolism of fabric in relation to historical events, and how did it contribute to the concept of femininity in Classical Athens?
The motifs of fabrics, threads and weaving are very dominant in mythology. Weaving is the main occupation of women: Penelope spent the twenty years waiting for her husband's return in weaving and unpicking the shroud for her father-in-law; the Bacchae in Euripides' play are women who abandoned their looms and went into the mountains to celebrate the Dionysian rites; Achilles was occupied in weaving during his time in Lykomedes' gynaikeion disguised as a girl; and Lysistrata used the art of weaving as a metaphor for women's talent and ability to solve the polis' problems better than men. The fabrics motif is also a very prominent factor in life and death: Medea sent a gift of a poisoned wedding robe to Glauke, her husband's bride, as vengeance; Dianira killed her husband Herakles in error, by giving him a tunic immersed in the centaur Nessos' poisoned blood; Ariadne, in contrast, saved Theseus life by means of a ball of thread that she gave him; and the Moiras spun the thread of life, determined its length and finally cut it.
Fabrics are symbols of female articulation: Philomela weaved into a veil her rape by her brother-in-law after he had cut out her tongue, and sent the woven veil to her sister; Arachne, who weaved the gods' adultery, was punished by Athena, who turned her into a spider. The goddess stressed that from then on Arachne would weave only a spider's web and not luxurious fabrics, a punishment symbolizing the silencing of the womanly skill as a vehicle for self-expression. Athena was the goddess who had granted the Athenians the gift of weaving. The summit of the Pan-Athenian ritual, as portrayed on the Parthenon frieze, is the placing of a peplos upon Athena's image. That event, whether mythological, historical or symbolic, demonstrates the deep significance of weaving and fabrics in Athenian society.
The glamour of Nike's gown stands in contrast to the mundane life of the Athenian women, who spent most of their times in spinning and weaving the entire family's textile needs. The art of spinning and weaving was identified with diligence, proficiency and hard work. Thus, Nike's fabric would arouse in the spectator's mind the talent and diligence of the Athenian women and their contributions, such as those of Penelope and Ariadne.
The abundance of 'fabric' in Nike's chiton is very salient. This
kind of opulence may have reflected the atmosphere and the unique state of mind
The style of Nike's Acropolis relief is expressed in dynamic and delicate lines
of diaphanous drapery that is Ionic in its 'feminine' nature. The Athenians,
although considered autochthonous, conceived of themselves and the Ionians as
having a common origin: Erichthonios, the primordial king of
The profusion of Nike's illusionary fabric could therefore symbolize
The superb quality of the carving and of the marble could be seen as a
metaphor of the victory of the spirit over materiality, and thus of the victory
of the Athenians over their enemies and their image as wiser and braver, as
Pericles had boasted. Another aspect in Pericles' speech that finds expression in Nike's smooth
and delicate fabric is that of the hedonistic value: jo
The movement and sensual nature of these images are salient and, of course,
totally unrealistic. Andrew Stewart emphasizes that the declared aim of the
sculptor was to persuade the spectator into believing this impression. The question raised at the beginning of this discussion now becomes much more
pointed: Why, in a declared male-dominated society, should goddesses of Victory
be portrayed with such feminine and sensual characteristics? What was behind
the sculptors' decision? According to Stewart: 'The individual Nikai are
stunningly beautiful. Wearing diaphanous clothing that reveals every contour of
their bodies, they seduce the spectator to fall in love with them.' Such
portrayal was meant to stimulate the spectators' desire, to make them identify
the goddess with their city-state, and thereby implant patriotic feelings in
their heart. The sensual goddess attracts the viewer, gives him aesthetic
pleasure and accordingly, pride and love for his polis.  Such portrayal is consistent with Pericles' command to his citizens to
become erastai – "erotic lovers" of
Such use of the female image in order to celebrate victories won by men, political values intended for men only, and to promote patriotic feelings for the city-state, has a dissonant tone from the gender point of view. The use of women to elevate the man in Greek culture has already been discussed: Hurwit has shown that the relief portraying Pandora's birth at the base of the Athena Partheos monument was meant to assert the superiority of men. The question of why was a woman chosen to utter Socrates' speech in Plato's Symposium is resolved by David Halperin: Diotima marks the inferiority of women, who bear mortal offspring, as against the metaphoric procreation of a poetic or spiritual creation by poets and men of culture.
Nike's lovely vision thus simultaneously embodies the benefits of both democracy and military victory, as Stewart puts it: 'Victory! Victory! Victory!'
From the Athenian point of view, the victory was firm and abiding; however,
was this a real victory? The defeat of the Persian had occurred some dozens of
years before the construction of Nike's temple and relieves. It could be that
the Athenians had needed that anachronistic image in order to be encouraged in
the face of their more severe contemporary reality: persistent warfare with the
Spartans, the failure of the expedition to conquer
In the light of this gloomy reality, the Victory, so to speak, appears to
be an attempt at self-conviction, a lie, and an illusion. The fabric is again
given a main role, as the creator of a false image of victory. The textile and
the art of weaving as a feminine craft, could also symbolize the skills of
concealing and lying: Pandora was a beautiful woman whose ornate garment
concealed her vain soul; and the robe Medea sent to Glauke was revealed as a
death trap. The beauty of the fabric could be compared to the beauty of the
seductive song that distracts the listener's attention from the burden of
reality. Nike's graceful robe may thus be an exquisite metaphor covering the
unpleasant truth, like the Sirens' beautiful and seductive songs. As such, the
image would have had a dual meaning for the Athenians: literally, as a
'victory' image, expressing the defeat of the Persians as the Athenian
imperialism spread; and as the desired future victory over
The use of female seduction for propagandist needs characterizes Nike, as has been shown; and as the goddess of Victory, the Meidias Painter's personifications, according to Burn, are immersed in a dreamy distanced heaven, and thus also express an escapist state of mind.
Nike's robe therefore obtains significance as an image that metaphorically covers and embellishes reality, a delusional scene that distracts and deceives the spectator. The illusion in Nike and the akroteria images is thus double: it is a fantastic vision of a woman that at the same time represents a deceptive reality. That illusory image calls to mind certain legendary characters in the modern world that are considered as archetypes of femininity. Are the Classical sculptured womanly images, in comparison to modern feminine sex symbols, as Naomi Wolf puts it, 'images of beauty used against women'? From a gender point of view, that might be so; however, do the beauty and charm of those celestial figures also have value and express deeper meanings? Can we perceive Nike's glamour from a non-gender perspective? What was the meaning of 'beauty' in the Classical world? Was their any deeper significance to physical beauty, and if so, can we apply it to the works under discussion?
The concept of kalokagathia connects between kalos (beauty) and agathos (the good). This connection is fundamental to the Classical outlook on beauty, which considers its core to lie in the virtues of moderation, self-control (enkrateia) and self-knowledge (sophrosyne). Physical beauty was considered by Homer as a valuable and desirable quality for a warrior, and as part of his overall excellence (arete). In reality, the Greek aristocracy in the Archaic period desired its youth to have beauty of both body and spirit, and demanded a combination of a fine and cultured appearance. Proper education, according to Socrates, would combine the study of poetry and music with gymnastic training, in order to attain equilibrium between body and soul.
In Greek thought, there is recognition of the ability of
physical beauty to attract and to please. The scale of beaut
In a general sense, those divinities may symbolize the
Nike is also a permanent participant in the apotheosis
of heroes such as Herakles. As a consecrator, she elevates and merges the human
soul with the sublime, and her lovel
The exquisite and ultra-feminine sight of Nike may have
caused the Ancients to recall another mythological mediator – the nymph, an
image that can shed additional light on the meaning of Nike. Dancing nymphs represented as Caryatids appear with billowing robes made of
diaphanous drapery, similar to Nike's images. Marine
nymphs, or Nereids, were portrayed in architectonic sculpture with the same
features as Nike, as sensual bodies with flowing robes, with only the addition
of wings distinguishing the figure as a Nike or a Nereid, like the sculptures
The sensual nature of that Nereid is strengthened by the
baring of one breast and the slight twist of the bod
The nymphs are very significant in the Odyssey, symbolizing the departure from home and the return of the heroes; while in between, they take care of and strengthen the heroes as they continue their journey. The nymphs also inspire with sanctity those who have been seized by them, and they assist in their passage from the profane world to the sacred. The Nereids were also identified with the Eleusian Mysteries, during which they danced in honor of the newly consecrated, whose souls were also 'dancing', as Socrates tells Ion. The Nereids are thus connected, as noted by Judith Barringer, both to the Eleusian and the Dionysian Mysteries, since they promise eternal bliss in the afterlife. Like the nymphs, Nike too is a mediator, glorifying the returning warriors and validating their victory through the ritual sacrifice and her own sanctity. The validation of the Athenian victory by such a lovely divine authority seems to have been related in Ancient times to the lofty aspirations for consecration and merging with the divine and the sublime. The notion that Nike is unbinding her sandal, mentioned previously, contributes to such a perception. The desire to experience divine ecstasy is common to many ancient rituals. It would appear that Nike supplied that need to attain a godlike experience in the earthly world, since she herself was a consecrator. The illusionary aspect, thus does exist in the socio-political sense, but is even more intensive from the spiritual aspect.
In summary, this analysis of Nike's images and the female akroteria sculptures has raised the issue of symbolism in the socio-political and spiritual-religious contexts. The artistic style, characterized by the emphasis on the flowing drapery of the fabrics is interpreted as loaded with deep mythological, social and allegorical meanings. The spinning and weaving motif, which is central in many mythological narratives, is also significant from the socio-realistic aspect; with the allegorical implications constituted by metaphors of the euphoric atmosphere of victory following the Persian wars. Representation of the benefits of the democracy and the military victory by means of the image of Nike, necessarily raises the gender aspect and begs the question: Why was a male victory embodied by an ultra-feminine statue? This discussion was based upon earlier studies, such as the enigmatic relief of Pandora's birth in the Athena Parthenos monument, from the artistic aspect; and the meaning of Diotima in the Symposium, from the philosophical aspect. The symbolism of the delicate and sumptuous feminine fabric was interpreted as a metaphor for concealing and distorting the truth – the sore reality during the Peloponnesian wars. This reading of escapism is further reinforced through analogy with the personification portrayals in Classical vase paintings. Representations of feminine beauty are thus perceived as providing an illusion from several aspects: the illusion of victory, as well as the illusion created by this seductive beauty. An additional question asked here was: Can this image be defined as 'beauty used against women'? Analysis of the significance of physical and spiritual beauty in Classical thought raised other contexts and meanings. Beauty may be conceived as a revelation of the divine and as a means to attain a godlike ecstatic experience. Nike is conceived in this way as a mediator, like certain other mediating gods. Finally, comparison to the nymph helps to clarify the most important aspect contained in the images of women who deliver the message of victory: that of consecration and sanctification as a means to create an illusion of elevation and merging with the divinity, and attaining the sublime. The interpretations from the gender aspect have been offered here from a modern-day perspective, while the spiritual and the religious meanings, reflecting the aspiration to attain the sublime, express the thoughts prevalent in Ancient times. This duality appears to testify, as it does in other images and subjects in Classical art, to a permanent tension between the ethical-gender and the spiritual aspects, the profane and the sacred, or the earthly and the celestial worlds, whose rules, so it seems, are different.
 For a comprehensive discussion of Nike's
temple in the Acropolis and the narrative and symbolic meaning of its sculptural
complex see: Andrew Stewart, 'History, Myth and Allegory in the Program of the
 Stewart, 'History, myth and allegory', 54; Erica Simon, 'An Interpretation of the Nike Temple Parapet', In the Interpretation of Architectural Sculpture in Greece and Rome, ed. Diana Buitron-Oliver, Hanover and London, 1997, 133; Jeffrey Hurwit, The Athenian Acropolis, Cambridge, 1999, 213.
 Hurwit, Athenian Acropolis, 190. See also: Simon, 'the Interpretation of Architectural Sculpture ', 127-129, 135-136.
 Ethel Abrahams,
'Greek Dress', In Ancient Greek Dress, ed. Marie Johnson,
composition is formed by oppositions that attract and delight the spectator
See: Aristotle, Rhetoric, 3.9.8, 1410a; Aristotle, Poetics 7, 8,
In: Aristotle, Rhetoric, trans. W. Rhys Roberts; Poetics, trans.
 Andrew Stewart, Art,
Desire and the Body in Ancient
 Homer, Odyssey, 2.93-110.
 Euripides, Bacchae, trans. Paul Woodruff, Indianopolis, 1998, 117-118.
 Apollodorus, The
Library, trans. James George Fraser,
 Aristophanes, Lysistrara, In: Aristophanes, Acharnians,
Lysistrata, Clouds, trans. James Henderson,
 Euripides, The Medea, trans. John
 Apollodorus, The Library, II, vii 7.
 Apollodorus, The Library, Epitome,
 Hesiod, Theogony, 904-906.
 Apollodorus, The Library, III.xiv.8.
 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. D. E. Hill, Warminster, Wiltshire, c1985-c2000,
 Claude Berard, 'The Order of Women', In A City of Images – Iconography and Society in Ancient Greece, ed. Claude Berard et al., New Jersey, 1989, 90; Ellen D. Reeder, Pandora – Women in Classical Greece, ed. Ellen D. Reeder, Baltimore and Princeton, 1995, 202.
 On the peplos gift to Athena, see: E. J. W. Barber, 'The Peplos of Athena', In Jenifer Neils, Goddess and polis: the Panathenaic Festival in ancient Athens, New Jersey, 1992, 112-117; Reeder, Pandora, 200. The question of whether the frieze portrays the Pan-Athenian procession as a specific historical event – which was held before the battle of Marathon in 490, or as a mythological expression in which the characters are mythological, or generic and archetypal, is resolved by Hurwit, who concludes that this is a trans-mythological-historical-realistic event beyond time and space, and a conceptual essence, which is not realistic at all, of the ritual event idea. See: Hurwit, Athenian Acropolis, 222-228.
 Reeder, Pandora, 200-202; Berard, 'The Order of Women', 90; Barber, 'The Peplos of Athena', 104-112.
 On the Delian League see: Anton Powell, Athens and Sparta: constructing Greek political and social history from 478 B.C., London, 2001, 2, 8-11, 12-22, 44-48, 59-60; Lisa Kallet,'The Fifth Century: Political and Military Narrative', in Classical Greece, ed. Robin Osborne, New York, 2000,170-196.176-178, 180-182.
 For autochthony,
see: Nicole Loraux, The children of Athena: Athenian ideas about citizenship
and the division between the sexes,
 On the marble's
translucent quality, see: Stewart, Art, desire and the body, 46.
Peloponnesian war, II.xxxviii. Hedonism is formulated by restrictions based
upon the principle of measurement. See: Plato, Protagoras, trans. C. C.
 Martin Robertson,
A Shorter History of Greek Art,
 Andrew Stewart, Greek
 Stewart, Art, desire and the body, 148. See also: Stewart, 'History, myth and allegory', 68-70; Stewart, Greek Sculpture, 166-167.
 Thucydides, Peloponnesian war, 2.43.1.
 Paul W. Ludwig, Eros
and Polis: desire and community in Greek political theory,
 Thucydides, Peloponnesian war, 3.84.2.
 Ludwig, Eros and Polis, 153-169.
 Jeffrey Hurwit, 'Beautiful Evil: Pandora and the Athena Parthenos', American Journal of Archeology, 99, 1995, 171-186.
 David M. Halperin, 'Why is Diotima a Woman? Platonic Eros and the Figuration of Gender', In Before Sexuality, eds. David M. Halperin, John J. Winkler, and Froma I. Zeitlin, New Jersey, 1990, 257-308.262-263, 276-284, 288-290.
 Stewart, 'History, myth and allegory', 67, 70; Stewart, Greek Sculpture, 166; Stewart, Art, desire and the body, 148. See also on Paionios' own triumph in analogy to the overall atmosphere: 'Self-satisfaction was in the air, and he was not about to be excluded', Stewart, Greek Sculpture, 89-92.
 Vered Lev-Kenaan examining mythical images of
weavers, scrutinizes the semantic proximity between the words 'textile' and
'text'; the original meaning of the Latin word 'textum' was fabric, and
only later did it receive the meaning of text. Thus, 'textile' is compared to
'text', which might be a lie. Nevertheless, Lev-Kenaan emphasizes the
difference between the innocent housewife weaver such as Penelope, or the
weaver of signs and codes such as Filomella, and the provocative weaver such as
Arachne or Hellene. See: Vered Lev-Kenaan, 'Silent Images: The Role of the
Mythological Weaver in Ancient Literary Criticism', In The Language of
Silence, eds. In Siegfried Jakel and Asko Timonen,
 Stewart, 'History, myth and allegory', 64; Jerome Jordan Pollitt, Art and Experience in Classical Greece, Cambridge, 1972, 115-118; Jerome Jordan Pollitt, 'Art, Politics, and Thought in Classical Greece', In The Greek Miracle, ed. Diana Buitron-Oliver, Washington, 1992, 43; Hurwit, The Acropolis in the Age of Pericles, 191.
 Lucila Burn, The Meidias Painter, Oxford, 1987, 97, 101, figs. 20d, 23b, 27a, b, 28a, b, 29a, b.
 Burn, Meidias Painter, 35-40.
 Burn, Meidias Painter, 36.
 Naomi Wolf, The
beauty myth: how images of beauty are used against women,
 Plato, Protagoras, 356-357.
 Walter Donlan, 'The Origins of Kalos Kagathos', American Journal of Philology, 94, 1973, 365, 367, 370, 372.
 Plato, Republic,
In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters, eds. Edith
 Plato, Symposium, In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 210-212.
 Plato, Phaedrus, In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 250.
 Plato, Republic, In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, III.401-402,.410-412.
 Plato, Hippias Raba, In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 290, 291.
 Plato, Phaedrus, In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 251.
 Bruce S. Thornton,
Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality,
Lissarague, 'Figures of Women', In A History of Women, ed. P. Schmitt
 See: Dancing
nymphs as Caryatids, 5th century,
 Irad Malkin, 'The Odyssey and the Nymphs', GAIA, 5, 2001, 11-14.
 Jennifer Larson,
Greek Nymphs – Myth, Cult, Lore,
 For a discussion of its doubtful location see: Larson, Greek Nymphs, 126-128.
 Larson, Greek Nymphs, 129-130.
 Walter Robert Connor,
'Seized by the Nymphs: Nympholepsy and Symbolic Expression in Classical
 John Boardman, Greek
Sculpture – The Classical Period,
 Connor, 'Seized by the Nymph', 171.
 Connor, 'Seized by the Nymph', 155-166; Malkin, 'The Odyssey and the Nymphs', 14; Larson, Greek Nymphs, 10, 13-14.
 Homer, Odyssey,
trans. Robert Fitzgerald,
 Malkin, 'The Odyssey and the Nymphs', 21-22, 23-25. Odysseus resembles the voices of the maidens to the Nymphs voices: Homer, Odyssey, 6.122-124.
 Connor, 'Seized by the Nymph', 164-165.
 Euripides, Ion, trans. K. H. Lee Warminster, 1997, 1080; Plato, Ion, In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, 536 b-c.
 Barringer, Divine Escorts, 150-151. See also: Euripides, Ion, 1074-1089.
 On the ritual of
the Athena Nike Parapet see: Michael H.
Jameson, 'The Ritual of the Athena Nike Parapet', In Robin Osborne and Simon
Hornblower, Ritual, Finance, Politics – Athenian Democratic Accounts
Presented to David Lewis,
 Abductions in myth
and art are an example of this duality. Stewart summarizes the many aspects of
abduction's symbolism, See: Andrew Stewart, 'Rape?', In Pandora, 74-90.
List of Illustrations:
Nike unbinding her sandal, relief from
Athena Nike parapet, ca. 420-400, marble, ht..101 m., in
Nike in front of Athena, Athe ize:11.0pt;
heads victorious athletes with diadem, Pelike, in
Woman, akroterion commonly ascribed to the
Hephaisteion and described as a 'Nereid', Parian marble, in
2005 – PhD: "Mythological Scenes in Roman and Early Byzantine Mosaics in Eretz Isael – Context and Meaning". Research interests: analysis of Greek and Roman art by means of a philosophical orientation; mythological mosaics from a neo-Platonic perspective; gender and art. Topics of publications: the mosaics from Sepphoris, Shechem and Scytopolis. Teaches courses in Classical concepts, gender and mythology in ancient art at Tel Aviv University. [Department of Art History, Yolanda and David Katz Faculty of the Arts, Mexico Building, Rooms 111 and 112, Tel-Aviv University, 69978 Tel-Aviv, Israel, Phone: 972-3-6408482, 972-3-6409481, Fax: 972-3-6407781, firstname.lastname@example.org ]