Peter Paul Rubens - The Judgment of Paris

by Alexanda Tuschka


Ein Bauernjunge sitzt auf einem Felsen. In seiner rechten Hand hält er einen Apfel, den er den drei hübschen Frauen im linken Bildteil präsentiert. Diese sind dabei sich zu entkleiden um ihre Vorzüge gekonnt in Szene zu setzen. Eine nach der anderen wird ausgiebig gemustert. Der goldene Apfel – er ist es, um den es den Damen in diesem Bild geht. Denn er ist die Trophäe, die der Jüngling letztlich der schönsten von Ihnen überreichen wird. Aber wie kam es zu diesem heiklen Wettstreit?

King Peleus and the nereid Thetis marry - for love. For this occasion, a great feast is prepared, to which all Olympian gods are invited - with only one exception: the bridal couple wanted to do without the presence of the goddess of discord, Eris, for understandable reasons.


The celebration is in full swing when the excluded and offended Eris appears, throws a golden apple among the revelers and disappears again. The apple bears the inscription "kallistá" - "the most beautiful". Dutch artist Joachim Wtewael (Joakim Eute-wal) shows the wedding party just before this moment. Eris has already appeared in the sky, holding the golden apple. More than 50 people can be counted in the small-format painting; at this point, however, none of them has noticed the angry Eris. In the center of the picture is the naked Aphrodite, who obviously feels comfortable in the arms of the god of war Ares. Little Cupid next to her aims one of his love arrows at her heart. Other couples can also be seen in close embraces. Wine is flowing in great quantities. Only the scenes in the background already point to the outcome of this story, in that the Paris judgment has already been integrated here as a simultaneous scene... But one after the other: in the middle of the cheerful mood the apple falls out of Eri's hand...


Soon a quarrel breaks out among the goddesses, who would be entitled to this apple. Three ladies claim the title for themselves: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Zeus, who wants to stay out of the dispute, appoints the innocent and mortal youth Paris to make this decision on his behalf. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, brings the three ladies to the ignorant man who is tending his sheep on Mount Ida. But how to decide for one? All three ladies are so incredibly beautiful.

The goddesses notice the shepherd's hesitation and begin to bribe Paris. Hera promises him dominion over the world, Athena a war career and wisdom - but Aphrodite promises Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world - Helen. The object of his desire, however, is already married to King Menelaus at this point. Nevertheless, this offer is irresistible - Paris presents the apple to Aphrodite. A decision with consequences: The offended Hera swears eternal enmity to Paris and the Trojans - the beginning of the Trojan Wars is hereby sealed.


Ruben's version of the theme shows the disunited ladies in the left part of the picture, Hermes and Paris facing each other on the right. Paris is unmistakably distinguished as a shepherd. He holds his shepherd's crook between his legs, his dog has made himself comfortable at his feet, and the sheep in the background graze unconcernedly in the green meadows. Hermes is also easily recognizable by his attributes: the winged helmet, the staff of Hermes and a fluttering robe distinguish him as the messenger of the gods. He is leaning comfortably against a tree; he, too, can hardly take his eyes off the beauties. Paris, on the other hand, has now made up his mind and indicates to the middle woman that she may accept the apple. He looks anything but determined, however; a little timidity is reflected in his facial expressions.


"Kallistá" - the most beautiful. It is not Athena who is just pulling her robe over her head in the left edge of the picture. The goddess of war has appeared with shield and spear. Since Homer described Athena as "owl-eyed", this animal is sitting next to her on a branch as her attribute.


Nor is it the womanly Hera who turns her back on the viewer here. She wraps parts of her body with a purple cloak. Her main attribute, the peacock, meanders along between the goddesses. Aphrodite points incredulously at her chest. Is she really meant? She has been able to win over the shepherd with her grace and beauty, possibly influenced by the promise she made to Paris. Hermes also seems to be taken with Aphrodite. Eye contacts can only be made between the men and her and thus also compositionally convey the impression that she is the most beautiful of the three women. Hermes and Aphrodite were later even to have a child together. Here, however, she is seen only in the company of a small putti.


But once again, the goddess of strife Eris has entered the scene. In the pierced sky she appears with a snake and a burning torch. She symbolizes the now approaching war. With the golden torch, Eris recalls a prophecy. Pari's mother, Queen Hebake, dreamed that she would give birth to a golden torch that would destroy Troy. Fearing its fulfillment, she abandoned her newborn son. However, farmers found little Paris, took pity on him and raised him to be a shepherd. It was to come true - Paris and the married Helen would fall in love; Helen would flee with Paris; her husband, Menelaus, would gather an army and pursue the escapees - war would break out.


Since this ancient episode and its outcome are presumably known to the viewer of the picture, in Rubens the passing of the sentence and the fulfillment of the prophecy coincide in one moment. The "Rubens woman", ladies with voluptuous and feminine curves, we see here three times. In a sense, these step down into the deep space of the painting, showing one of the women frontally, one in profile, and one from behind. The body shapes are similar; so is the hair - Paris truly has no easy task ahead of him.


At least nine versions were painted by the Fleming Rubens of this mythological story. The high popularity of the subject is reflected in the large number of surviving works with this theme. We find them especially clustered in the Renaissance . The subject offered the opportunity to show beautiful naked female bodies in a pleasant natural environment.


Peter Paul Rubens - The Judgment of Paris

Oil on wood, 1632 and 1635, 144,8 x 193,7 cm, National Gallery in London


Joachim Wtewael - The Feast of the Gods

Oil on wood, 1612, 36.5 x 42 cm, Clark Art Institute,

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