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Nikandre Kore

Michael Loy

The Nikandre Kore is one of the most quietly fantastic pieces of sculpture to survive to us from Greco-Roman antiquity. Modest and unassuming, this slightly-larger-than-life (1.75m) stone sculpted female figure dates to the mid-late seventh century BC, and she was found in the late nineteenth century on the island of Delos. With just a quick glance, it’s very easy to look straight past Nikandre — her face has eroded away, the drapery of her dress is heavy and rigid, and with a depth of only 0.17m she’s oddly ‘flat’ and ‘plank-like’ if you view her from the side. But look a little bit closer, and this intriguing piece of ancient artwork has a much more interesting story to tell.

The Nikandre is known as a ‘kore’ statue, named from the ancient Greek word for ‘girl’ or ‘maiden’. From the seventh century BC onwards, artists in and around the Greek lands sculpted many statues of this kind, all facing straight outwards (‘frontal’), and wearing a heavy garment called a ‘peplos’ or the lighter ‘chiton’ underneath. The Nikandre Kore is one of the earliest surviving examples we have of such statues, and so she plays a particularly auspicious role in the canon of ancient art history. Stylistically, she looks most similar to a group of statues that modern scholars have called an ‘Auxerre’ body type: this name has nothing to do with the ancient sculptures themselves, but it was attributed to the group after a certain statue of this type was found in the early twentieth century in the storage cupboard of the Museum of Auxerre, near Paris! Similar statues have been found on the island of Crete and in the region of Laconia. Did the same artists travel to these places? Were the statues all made by students of the same master craftsperson? Or were the statues all made in one place and shipped to these different locations?

But what was the Nikandre Kore doing on the island of Delos? This place was known to the Greeks as the birthplace of the god Apollo and his twin sister, the goddess Artemis, and so the island was regarded as sacred and deserving of the dedication of a sanctuary. During ancient times, Greeks would offer objects to the gods in order to communicate with them, such as when they wanted to make thanks to these divinities, or to ask for something in return. Offerings could be something as small as a flask of oil or piece of jewellery, right up to statues made of wood, stone, or bronze. The Nikandre Kore was dedicated to the goddess Artemis as an ‘votive’ in this way — but we don’t actually know what her dedicator was asking for in return. Furthermore, art historians are unsure who the lady of the statue is meant to represent.

Is this ‘kore’ actually a representation of the goddess Artemis, or perhaps the statue shows us the woman Nikandre herself?

One of the most remarkable features of this sculpture is the inscription that runs along the left side of the statue. It is written in an older form of the Greek alphabet, and zig-zags its way up and down the figure. The first line is written left-to-right, the second is written right-to-left, and the third is left-to-right again. This type of writing is called ‘boustrophedon’ (‘ox-turning’), because the lines of text weave one way and then the other just like an ox ploughing a field! A rough translation of the text reads:

Nikandre dedicated me to the goddess, far-shooter of arrows, Nikandre, the daughter of Deinodikos of Naxos, distinguished among women, sister of Deinomenes and wife of Phraxos.

From these words, we learn not only Nikandre’s name, but also that of her father, her brother, and her husband. Moreover, we can also confirm that she was dedicated to the goddess Artemis, as the epithet ‘far-shooter of arrows’ refers to Artemis as goddess of hunting and archery. It is also quite neat that Nikandre (and her father) were from Naxos, another Greek island, but that the statue ended up on Delos. We also know that the marble used to make the stone statue came from Paros, another island of the Greek Cyclades. So in this one statue we can see three islands represented — pretty neat!

If you want to see the Nikandre Kore up close and personal, you will need to go to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, where she lives in the archaic sculpture gallery. Or, closer to home, the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge has an excellent plaster cast of this statue, that you will see straight in front of you as you first enter the gallery. Or, from the comfort of your own armchair, why not check out this cool 3d model of the statue that I made in November 2018, rendered from a scan of the plaster cast in the Museum of Classical Archaeology?

Read more about Michael's work in Delos
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