Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Faced with an onerous task foisted on him by Jupiter, Paris made a fateful choice which led directly to the Trojan War. It all started when someone forgot to invite Eris, the goddess of discord, to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Angered by this slight she arrived at the banquet and threw a golden apple onto the table. Well-versed, of course, in the petty jealousies which were rife amongst the gods, Eris, in an inspired piece of mischief-making, had inscribed on the apple ‘for the fairest.’ This instantly had the desired effect when Juno, Minerva and Venus began to quarrel over the prize. In an effort to restore order, Jupiter asked Mercury to take the Apple of Discord to Paris on Mount Ida with instructions that he should be the final arbiter regarding the charms of the three divine contestants.
The three goddesses knew better than to leave things entirely to the whims of a mere mortal and immediately resorted to that tried and tested expedient – bribery. Juno offered to make Paris the ruler of both Europe and Asia; Minerva promised him victory in battle but Venus trumped them by guaranteeing him the love of Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris awarded the apple to Venus and then traveled to Sparta to claim his prize. Helen responded to his advances by eloping with Paris but, needless to say, this did not go down well with her husband King Menelaus who followed them accompanied by a large Greek army. The rest is history (or myth).
Cranach and his workshop painted many versions of The Judgment of Paris, a Homeric subject which was well received in the humanist circles in which Cranach moved. A close friend of Luther (they were godfathers to each other’s children) the artist was a central figure in the movement which became known as the Reformation, unleashed when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Palace church only 11 years or so before this painting was produced.
One can’t help but think that one reason for the popularity of this subject, and the reason that Cranach and his studio produced so many versions of it, is that it presented an opportunity to produce female nudes of an undoubtedly erotic nature – and of course an opportunity for his clients to enjoy looking at them – at the same time as displaying their classical learning.
Cranach’s early paintings of nudes display the influence of Italian models but later, as exemplified in this picture, he developed a personal ideal of female beauty, essentially anti-classical, looking back to late medieval, Gothic, influences (an ideal which is, however, appealing to the modern eye). Here his goddesses have slender waists, small breasts, long legs and betray a Mannerist elongation of the body. The addition of accessories such as jewelry and hats imparts a seductive eroticism, heightened by the suggestive use of a diaphanous scarf.
Paris is shown comfortably seated in a beautiful verdant landscape; a wide river flows past a prosperous town which sits beneath a rocky outcrop – a favorable vantage point for a citadel. He is accoutred in the very finest suit of the latest armor, set off by an extravagant hat, transforming him into a member of the Saxon court. In the centre, Mercury holds a glass sphere – a Germanic substitute for the golden apple. He presents the three captivating contestants, each assuming a different posture, the better to remind the (male) viewer of the charms of the female nude. The central goddess wears a large-brimmed hat which echoes that of Paris; she points towards the figure of Cupid who hovers above Paris, ready to unleash an arrow in her direction. This connection with Cupid identifies her as Venus, the illustrious winner of the contest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1527 Hans Holbein the Younger: Sir Thomas More, New York, Frick Collection
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1530 Correggio: Adoration of the Shepherds, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister