The Judgement of Paris depicts a tale that is essentially the prelude to the Trojan war. In summary, Zeus hosts a celebration for the marriage of Achilles’ parents, but excludes the goddess of discord, Eris. Enraged, Eris tosses a golden apple with the line ‘to the fairest one’ engraved on it into the celebration- knowing that the vapid Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are surely to fight over it.
Sensing the friction beginning to rise amongst the three goddesses (as per Eris’ predictions), Zeus decides that it is up to a mortal to determine who the apple belongs to. Paris, a Trojan mortal living estranged from his family (as it is prophesised that he is to bring destruction to his homeland), is instructed to play judge about the apple situation. After much deliberation, Paris chooses Aphrodite (as the gift of love certainly conquers those of royalty, or skill in war).
Simultaneously, he chooses Helen of Sparta (daughter of Zeus) to kidnap (only in some versions) in the name of affection. Enraged at losing, Hera and Athena side with the Greeks as they wage war on Troy to retrieve their stolen queen.
Morals behind the myth
The gods and goddesses of Greek mythology, as vividly portrayed in this tale, often exhibit humanlike behaviour, leaving us to question the essence of their divinity. Is expecting gods to be free of mortal vices such as hate, anger, or vengeance: unrealistic? The actions of Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite challenges the very morals that underpin divinity. Their defaulting to shallowness, entitlement, and jealousy over an apple triggers a catastrophic war. It begs the question: how can beings known for their godly nature succumb to such human frailties?
Moreover, the gods' involvement in the war (bestowing certain humans with the gift of unregulated power, providing them with exceptional weaponry, and even helping deceit the other team using outer-worldly powers) brings to light the concept of divine favouritism, which directly negates the ‘all are equal to god’ notion. Though the Greeks won, divine favouritism did not save them.
Many perished at sea before they ever reached home, most of which were (ironically) due to punishment from the gods for the rising egos from winning the war. Even the hero Odysseus, who was beloved by all gods, was cursed to never return home by Poseidon. Greek mythology abounds with instances of curses inflicted upon mortals by gods for reasons as trivial as existence itself. Athena's transformation of Arachne into a spider for surpassing her in weaving, Hera's retribution on countless women for Zeus' infidelities, and Apollo's curse on Cassandra for her rejection of him are poignant examples.
Rubens' interpretation of this myth is a testament to the Baroque era's fascination with rich, dynamic, and emotionally charged compositions. His portrayal is filled with opulent details and a palpable sense of movement. Notably, Rubens brilliantly isolates the bloody aftermath that follows the subject of the painting; mythologically speaking, the Trojan war is said to have killed 188 Trojans and 52 Greeks.
The consequences of Paris's choice are not immediately evident in the painting. However, the knowledge of the myth's outcome adds an underlying layer of tension and tragedy to the scene, making it more than just a snapshot of a beauty contest. Rubens' portrayal of this myth is rich in symbolism and allegory. The choice that Paris faces symbolizes the human condition of having to make difficult decisions with significant consequences. It raises questions about what humans value most: power, wisdom, or love. The choice of colours suggests a serene day, while the inclusion of not only the goddesses and Paris but also children and a dog creates an atmosphere reminiscent of a familial outing, evoking a 'picnic-like' atmosphere, perhaps.
It emphasizes the integrated concepts of ‘winning a game’ and receiving ‘a prize.’ Yet, Rubens effectively directs the viewer's focus toward the peaceful morning that snowballs into the grim future about to unfold. In this painting, Rubens cleverly incorporates the attributes of each goddess to help viewers identify them. Hera, the queen of the gods, is adorned in a regal manner, Athena carries her spear and shield, while Aphrodite's sensuous allure is evident in her posture and gaze. Rubens not only captures the essence of these deities but also invites viewers to contemplate the broader themes of beauty, desire, and the consequences of choices.
Rubens' portrayal of Paris choosing Aphrodite and presenting her with the golden apple symbolizes the preference for love and desire over power and wisdom. This pivotal choice, captured in the painting, serves as the catalyst for the tragic events that will ripple through history. Moreover, the painting reflects the cultural fascination with classical antiquity during the Baroque era. As Europe emerged from the Renaissance, there was a renewed interest in Greek and Roman mythology, art, and philosophy. Rubens' piece not only tapped into this cultural trend but also contributed to its further popularization.
Relevance to contemporary society
In a thought-provoking parallel, the myth's exploration of power dynamics finds resonance in contemporary society. Just as the gods wielded their magical powers and manipulated events to undermine mortals, modern-day politicians often enact controversial legislation despite public opposition. The timeless lesson embedded in these myths cautions against unchecked power and a lack of empathy, whether in the mythical realm of gods and heroes, or in our complex modern history and society. In essence, The Judgement of Paris invites us to contemplate the enduring lessons of unchecked power and its consequences.
Through art, it prompts us to reflect on the parallels between ancient myths and our present world, where those in positions of authority hold the potential to impact countless lives. Peter Paul Rubens' masterful painting, with its intricate symbolism and allegory, continues to resonate, urging us to ponder the complexities of leadership, the pursuit of desire over reason, and the timeless relevance of these themes in our lives.
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