Nike Adjusting Her Sandal, Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis, Athens

Compare this off-balance image of the goddess of victory to earlier classical sculpture.


Nike Adjusting Her Sandal, from the south side of the parapet of the Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis, Athens, Greece, c. 410 B.C.E., marble, 3′ 6″ high (Acropolis Museum, Athens)

Additional resources
Temple of Athena Nike video, Acropolis Museum

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] When you walk up the Sacred Way to the Acropolis, right before you go through the gatehouse, the Propylaea, you see a small, beautiful Ionic temple, the temple to Athena Nike.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] Inside, as is typical of Greek temples, was a sculpture of the goddess of Athena Nike. That is, an Athena associated with victory and battle. Nike means victory.

Dr. Zucker: [0:27] This is a very constrained space. At some point, people were worried about falling off, and so they added a railing, a parapet. It was carved with a series of small figures. In fact, the parapet itself is no more than about four feet tall.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] A parapet is a kind of railing and a space where you can walk, but these didn’t face the people on the inside. These faced the walkway up.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] What we see carved in fairly high relief are a series of Nikes, that is, winged figures of victory.

Dr. Harris: [0:57] The most famous one is the “Nike Adjusting Her Sandal.” I’ve never been clear if she’s taking her sandal off or putting her sandal on.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] I think she’s taking it off. I think she’s undoing the knot and the sandal will slip off. That’s because she will be walking on sacred ground.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] We have a figure that’s by definition off-balance. She’s lifting one foot up to undo the tie on her sandal. She’s got her other leg bent. She leans forward, but her left arm comes up to help her balance. You can see the wing just behind her left arm.

Dr. Zucker: [1:28] Actually, there’s two wings if you look. It’s a good thing she’s got them because presumably it’s those wings that are helping her maintain her balance.

[1:35] It’s so interesting, because in the High Classical period we see a great deal of attention paid to making figures seem relaxed and even and balanced. Yet here we have somebody, as you said, that is inherently awkward.

Dr. Harris: [1:50] So if you think, for example, back to the “Doryphoros,” the quintessential Classical sculpture, there is a sense of one side of the body balancing the other in contrapposto. You’re right. Here we have an intentional interest in a form that’s out of balance.

Dr. Zucker: [2:05] Now, this dates to about 410 [B.C.E.], and so we’re on the other side of the century. We can see that the artist has taken the Classical handling of the relationship between the body and the drapery and accentuated it.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] By the Classical treatment of the drapery, you’re referring to the style of Phidias, whose work we see in the sculptures of the Parthenon where we have drapery that clings to the forms of the body and creates very intricate folds.

Dr. Zucker: [2:29] But not quite this revealing.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] No.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] This is among the most erotic works of art that we find on the Acropolis.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] In the figures in the Parthenon, for example the pediment sculptures, we see the drapery following the forms of the body and cascading around it.

Dr. Zucker: [2:44] You can see that especially in the so-called “Three Goddesses.”

Dr. Harris: [2:47] Exactly, but here there is a sense of that drapery being transparent, where we can really see the nude body underneath.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] Well, look at the way her left thigh is exposed, her breasts are exposed, her abdomen is so transparent to us, but then look at the way that the folds gather on her arm just beautifully, and actually you can see that the artist has created little peaks in that drapery, giving us a sense of the weight of the cloth.

Dr. Harris: [3:12] Her right shoulder is nude, but her left shoulder is clothed. We have access to the body in either case, and then we see what art historians call “chain folds,” as though you imagine holding up a chain the way that it drapes and falls down with the pull of gravity, drawing attention with the shadows there to the space between the legs.

[3:30] There is clear eroticism here. The “Nike Adjusting her Sandal” is only one of many panels along the parapet. In another panel we see two Nikes, or Nikai, coaxing an animal to sacrifice, and in other panels we see Nike figures who are offering trophies to a military victory.

Dr. Zucker: [3:48] So all of this within the context of the Acropolis, within the context of the Parthenon. The importance of military victories, and not long after not only the victory over the Persians, but also the very destructive war with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War.

Dr. Harris: [4:03] Right, and Sparta being Athens’ longtime nemesis.

[4:06] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Nike Adjusting Her Sandal, Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis, Athens," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2015, accessed May 21, 2024,