The Judgment of Paris

The Judgment of Paris is a theme taken from Greek mythology, it is the story of how the Trojan war began and has been a common subject in art.  This was written about, painted, sculpted and quite popular in antiquity before becoming newly fashionable again during the Renaissance and throughout art history.  Themes on the Trojan war continued to show up in the arts for centuries and this was a commonly represented part of this story.

Judgment of Paris, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c-1528, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Here is a synopsis of the Judgment of Paris story:

Paris was born the son of the Trojan king but it was foretold at his birth that he would bring about the downfall of the city of Troy so he was sent away and raised in the country, unaware of his royal heritage.  When he grew up he became a shepherd, watching his flocks in the fields all day.

On Mount Olympus there was a wedding of King Peleus of Thessaly and the sea goddess Thetis (future parents of Achilles).  All the gods were invited except Eris, the goddess of discord, as she brought arguments with her everywhere.  After the vows Eris showed up angry and decided to play a trick, she rolled a golden apple down the aisle with the words “To the Fairest” and left.  Eris knew how vain the goddesses were and wanted to cause an argument.

Who was the apple for?  Who was the fairest?  No one could decide between Hera (Juno- goddess of marriage and Zeus’s wife), Athena (Minerva- goddess of wisdom) and Aphrodite (Venus- goddess of Love).  Not even Zeus, king of the gods, wanted to get in the middle of this argument.  He decided to let the Trojan shepherd Paris judge as he was proven to be a very honest man.

Judgment of Paris, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630’s, The National Gallery (London)

The goddesses paraded in front of him and each offered a bribe: Hera offered an empire, Athena offered great wisdom and military power, but Aphrodite offered to make the most beautiful woman in the world fall completely in love with him.

Paris chose Aphrodite as the fairest and then he chose Helen of Sparta (currently the wife of Menelaus).  Helen was so beautiful because she was a daughter of Zeus and her mother was Leda.  Aphrodite brought him to Sparta, Helen fell in love with him instantly and they went back to Troy.  All of Sparta was extremely angry and vowed vengeance.  The other two goddesses were extremely angry and vowed vengeance, and so the Trojan War begins.   

Judgment of Paris, Claude Lorrain, 1645-46, National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.)

Let's compare and contrast three well known paintings of this story (above).  German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder made several versions, he depicts the goddess as young and lithe (if proportionally inaccurate) and shows Paris dressed as a Renaissance man.  Rubens paints an exuberant and dramatic scene showing the goddesses in his famous plump “Rubenesque” manner and fills the work with multiple references to mythology (peacock, cupid, Medusa, etc.).  As typical of the French painter Claude Lorrain who  lived in Rome, he focuses on the landscape rather than the figures.  Lorrain loved all things classical and shows the goddesses dressed or partially draped in a way that was influenced from classical sculpture.

This was a popular theme for a few reasons: it showed the patron was educated and had knowledge of the classics, it was a theme from a famous war but showed no bloodshed and it depicted beautiful women.  Yet there was another and quite important reason for Trojan war themes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art states on their website:

“Just as the emperor Augustus had claimed descent from Aeneas, a son of Venus, so many Italian princes traced their ancestry to the participants in the Trojan War or sought to equate their own accomplishments with the deeds of these heroes.”*

Frequently this is the case with subjects in art, the patron wants to tie himself/herself to the events portrayed in either a painting or sculpture and so commissioned a well known historic or mythological theme from an artist.

*Source of quote: Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints | Thematic Essay |Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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