Memory of Samothrace

By Margaret Randall | October 25, 2006


The little girl, wearing a navy blue coat with white Peter Pan collar, holds her grandfather’s hand as they pass through the main entrance to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once inside the building, she will be allowed to disengage and move off towards the many attractions that ignite her passion. As long as she remains in view, he says. The little girl is six or seven; she is me six decades ago. The grandfather, who has been dead now more than forty years, took me often to the great museum. After a couple of hours in the viewing halls we would have milkshakes in the cafeteria, or oysters on the half shell and swimming in lemon juice at a nearby seafood bar. I remember these outings with all the thrill of a young child discovering the wonders of other cultures, of art.


As a child at the Metropolitan I especially loved the Egyptian wing: the gold-masked king in his narrowing sarcophagus. Lines of compelling figures engaged in all the different activities of life, always depicted in profile. The magnificent gesture of Queen Nefertiti’s chiseled face, her chin lifted slightly in what may have been my earliest imagining of female dignity. In the Renaissance Hall I was drawn to the Cellini Cup: a small and very ornate shell-shaped dish of gold and jewels that once held salt at a table of royalty. The power of princes and princesses to enthrall the young. My first hand-printed story, when I learned to write, was about successfully stealing this cup from a locked museum showcase. But the greatest impact during these visits came just a moment beyond the museum’s vast front doors. I remembered and anticipated its repetition. Looking straight ahead and way up, I would catch sight of the figure of the Victory of Samothrace, the famous Winged Victory of Hellenistic Greece.

I had to stretch my neck and lift my face to take in her majestic stance: this woman whose powerful marble-draped body revealed its every muscle and curve. Even without arms, without a head, she was beautiful. More than beautiful, she spoke to me of strength: power and possibility. Perhaps she was my first woman love, earliest presentiment of my later lesbian self. Whatever the Victory of Samothrace was to me then, her imposing figure is inextricably linked to those visits to the Metropolitan when I was young.

Or such is the storyline that has accompanied me all these years.


This past March I reserved one New York day for the Metropolitan Museum. I had been there many times since those childhood visits, but never alone and never with time to wander freely, retrieving past experience and wondering where curiosity and taste might lead the woman I am now. No longer was the Egyptian collection of primary interest. Eighteenth century European terra-cotta sculptures caught my fancy. And the pre-Columbian art I’ve come to know in its natural setting. The Impressionists. Van Gogh and Gauguin. Grecian vases. And an intimate satisfaction when I saw that several of my painter friends from the 1950s now have work in this venerable institution.

Back then, poor and hungry for art, we walked from our lofts and cold-water flats on the city’s Lower East Side all the way up to this museum; few dared dream of being included on its walls. Now these hours moving from wing to wing were bountiful, delicious. But a single absence slowly became a void. Where was the Victory of Samothrace, that woman I had loved as a child and whose image I had carried in me all these years?

The responses were uniformly unsatisfactory. The information desk had no idea what I was talking about; someone finally handed me a free brochure: “If we have it, you’ll find it here.” I approached an elderly guard, thinking surely he must remember the magnificent woman at the top of the stairs. He told me he’d been working at the museum for 46 years and no statue had ever stood where I pointed so insistently. Museums change their exhibits, but I couldn’t imagine this one recycling four tons of marble to some basement vault. The more I thought about my lost statue, the more disgruntled—and disoriented—I became.


At 68, I’ve acquired the almost daily habit of perusing the New York Times obituaries. The internet makes it easy. More often than not, a friend or acquaintance appears. This is how I came across the October 16, 2004 death notice for “Phyllis Williams Lehmann, 91, Archaeologist of Samothrace.” Neither friend nor acquaintance, but the mention of Samothrace.

“Dr. Lehmann was an authority on the monuments and architecture of Samothrace, a remote, mountainous island in the north Aegean. The island was considered crucial in the development of the art and architecture of the Hellenistic period, which lasted from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. until the mid-first century B.C. Samothrace was the center of one of the most famous mystery cults of Greek antiquity; its rituals were carried out in the group of imposing buildings known as the Sanctuary of the Great Gods …”

The article discussed the ruins of Samothrace and Dr. Lehmann’s work there, eventually—as obituaries must—moving to the woman herself and her many accomplishments. Working at Samothrace in 1949, Phyllis Lehmann made one of her most important discoveries, a tall marble statue of Nike, the goddess of victory, dating from the second century BC. As background to this discovery, the Times writer mentioned that this was the third Victory unearthed at the site. Lehmann left her discovery on home ground. It now resides in the Samothrace site museum. The second, a Roman copy, was discovered in the 1870s by Austrian archaeologists, and was claimed for Vienna. But the first had been found by the French archaeologist Charles Champoiseau in 1863. He took it—in the true spirit of colonialist plunder—back to Paris “where it greets visitors to the Louvre from the top of an imposing staircase…”

My statue. My staircase. And so the mystery is solved. I never saw the Winged Victory at New York’s Metropolitan, and I wasn’t a small child. I must have caught dramatic sight of her on my youthful visit to Paris. I was 17 when I accompanied my parents to the Louvre. My vivid memory of the feeling in my neck, of having to raise my child’s face to gaze up those marble steps at the woman whose body thrust ever so slightly forward at the top was not, after all, absolute. But how did my body’s cells make the switch? How did this memory become so much a part of my journey? How did 17 become six or seven? How had non-linear time become so linear in my conviction?


Archaeological sites have long drawn me into their silence and mystery. I am riveted when I stand among half destroyed walls last inhabited eight hundred or two thousand years ago. My hands long to caress a piece of broken pottery, and I am transported imagining who made it and what it may have held. When I stand on the windswept highpoint of Sacsayhuamán, straddling the puma’s eye, I want to know what the Inca experienced when he looked from that spot upon the place which was then and remains the city of Cuzco. When I walk along the jungle pathways of Cobá and a Mayan family emerges from thick vegetation, I imagine the woman and her children as their ancestors might have been. When I stand at the edge of Kee Tseel’s sandstone alcove, turn, and gaze onto the canyon floor below, I fancy myself a member of that Anasazi community eight centuries before. Did I wonder what lay beyond the silver creek? Did I know?


I do not believe that time is linear. I prefer a circular or spiral configuration. And so I wonder: why this jolt to consciousness—this sense of memory spliced—when I discover that it wasn’t until I was 17 that I met the marble woman I loved at seven.


Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 25, 2006


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