Sex, male power and the Judgement of Paris.

Back story

Zeus held a banquet in celebration of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles who would go on to become the legendary Greek warrior). This was the archetypal Greek wedding. It would have everything, but most particularly it would have guests behaving badly and the potential for a fair amount of family discord.

Eris, goddess of discord, contributed a golden apple which she threw in as a prize for beauty.

Three goddesses,Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, claimed the apple. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest and eventually, reluctant to favour any claim himself, he declared that Paris, a Trojan mortal, would judge their cases.

While Paris inspected them, each attempted to use her powers to bribe him.

Hera offered to make him king of Europe and Asia.

Athena offered wisdom and skill in war.

Aphrodite, who enhanced her charms with flowers and song, offered her sister, the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta, who was at this time the wife of the Greek king, Menelaus.

Now this really set the cat amongst pigeons. We have a big Greek wedding and Aphrodite, a well-known tart, offers the wife of the Greek king to Paris, a Trojan.

Aphrodite, the sex goddess, was effortlessly more seductive and more charming than the other two. She probably would have won without throwing Helen into the mix so you can see why people were a bit pissed-off with her.

On top of this, she was a bit of a tart, listing amongst her lovers the gods Mars, Dionysius, Mercury, Zeus, Nerites, Poseidon, and the mortal Adonis. She was also married to Vulcan, the God of blacksmiths, who didn’t seem to mind her infidelities despite catching  her in the act with Mars.

As a consequence she was a bit of a poster girl for artists from the Renaissance onwards Particularly if they were searching for something with high erotic value.

Mars and Venus caught in flagrente delicto by Vulcan Alexandre-Charles Guillemot-1827
Mars and Venus caught in flagrente delicto by Vulcan Alexandre-Charles Guillemot-1827
Rubens Venus, Cupid, Bacchus and Ceres (1612-1613)
Rubens Venus, Cupid, Bacchus and Ceres (1612-1613)
Titan: Mars and Venus
Titan: Mars and Venus
Titan Venus and Adonis
Titan Venus and Adonis

Paris accepted Aphrodite’s gift and awarded the apple to her, receiving Helen, the enmity of the Greeks and especially of Hera. The Greeks’ expedition to retrieve Helen from Paris in Troy is the mythological basis of the Trojan War.

The story has everything. It is the mythical beginning of the most famous war of ancient times: the Trojan war.

It is also an potent commentary on what happens when the affairs of men and gods collide. Zeus, a renowned pants man wisely decided not to take part in the judgement. Hera is his wife and Athena his daughter. Choosing either would lead to accusations of favouritism, not choosing Hera would lead to increased marital discord, given his long series of infidelities.

Zeus had children with  the goddesses Aega, Antiope, Demeter, Eurynome, Gaea, Hera, Metis, Mnemosyne, Maea, Persephone, Themis and as many as 60 off-spring with mortals. His children included Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Persephone, Dionysus, Perseus, Heracles, Helen of Troy, Minos, and the Muses.

He once disguised himself as a bull to abduct the beautiful Europa.

Europa and the bull depicted by Jean-François de Troy (1716)
Europa and the bull depicted by Jean-François de Troy (1716)

He also disguised himself as swan to seduce Leda.

 Rubens Leda and the Swan
Rubens Leda and the Swan

There are echoes of this in Guillaume Guillon Lethière’s painting where a number of swans surround the main figures.


It certainly does help to know your Greek mythology when it comes to looking at paintings like these.

The story is also a tale of male dominance and sexual power. The three goddesses must compete for the prize and they must compete before a mortal male. There is no doubt that Aphrodite probably used some persuasive powers that the other two were not prepared to exercise.

Naturally enough, stories like these attracted the attention of many artists mainly, during the 15th and 16th centuries. Unlike the story of Susanna and the Elders, it has not attracted the attention of more modern painters, despite the fact that there are themes of male power and sexuality inherent in the story and it has plenty to excite feminist outrage.

At a superficial level, the story provides an opportunity for the artist to depict naked females. It was rare, and not socially acceptable, for artists to simply celebrate female beauty.  It was always more useful to be able to paint a naked woman in a classical or biblical myth and getting three at once was a bonus.

In many of the paintings, all three of the goddesses are naked, although Athena often wears her helmet and carries a spear. Perhaps she felt naked without them.

The contest has provided the artist with an opportunity to do a comprehensive study of the female form.


This painting by Hendrick van Balen the Elder, (c. 1599) is relatively clumsy effort. The three naked goddesses are depicted in three different poses as is common in many of the paintings. Athena has strangely misshapen back muscles.  According to the legend only Aphrodite was prepared to undress to seduce Paris but in this case all three have. It produces no advantage for Hera and Athena, as Paris looks straight past them to make eye contact with Aphrodite who was already being showered with flowers by two small cupids.

There are two key elements to the paintings of the situation. The first is the potential to depict the female from three different perspectives in the same painting and the second is to capture some of the drama inherent in the situation. In this painting, the only dramatic tension is in Paris’ clear intention to choose Aphrodite.

Anselm Feuerbach (1829 –  1880)  has taken a similar opportunity to depict the female nude with two stunningly beautiful women dominating the centre of the painting.

Anselm_Feuerbach Judgement of Paris

In this painting, there is a lush sensuality that is not present in the van Balen and the emphasis is very strongly on the female form. Paris is blended into the background both in terms of the colour tones and the detail that is used to depict him. He lacks the sensuality and vibrancy of the colour of the two nudes who seem preoccupied with their own beauty rather than impressing Paris. The languid eroticism of two goddesses establishes a psychological perspective on the situation and their preoccupation is in marked contrast to Paris who seems almost bored with proceedings.

He’s not bored in in the portrayal by Eduard Lebiedzki (1862 -1915)  which, like the Feuerbach, establishes the emotional interplay between the three goddesses and Paris.

Eduard Lebiedzki Judgement of Paris
                                                  Eduard Lebiedzki Judgement of Paris

Paris has made his decision and is clearly entranced by a rather vacuous looking Aphrodite. Hera and Athena look on, one resigned to decision while the other casts a contemptuous glance at both Paris and Aphrodite, clearly unimpressed with Paris’ choice and the wiles that Aphrodite had used to win. The positioning of the two standing goddesses is similar to that in Feuerbach’s work, one faces the viewer while the other has her back turned. The difference is that in Lebiedzki’s painting, while the goddesses are on display for the viewer, their attention is clearly focused on Paris.

The same is true in Anton Raphael Mengs painting. The goddesses dominate the centre of the frame but their poses are static and Hera, centre figure, is clearly disinterested in what is going on and Athena, on the right, is patently scornful.

Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779)
                                                    Anton Raphael Mengs (1728 – 1779)

There is mixed in similarity between the two fingers on the right-hand side of these two paintings despite there being painted approximately 150 years apart.


The version by Frans Floris provides an interesting perspective. The foreground is dominated by three figures: Zeus, Hera and Athena who are all portrayed in almost amazonian gorgeousness. On the left, Zeus looks out of the frame of the picture. It’s his party and he shows a proprietorial disinterest in the scene that he has set up. Hera and Athena look on with with bemused contempt.

In the middle background, Paris presents the golden apple to Aphrodite, a diminutive and somewhat less attractive figure compared with the three in the foreground.

Frans Floris the Elder (1517 – 1570)
                                                        Frans Floris the Elder (1517 – 1570)

Floris Has clearly used a favourite model for Aphrodite and he uses the same one for his painting of Adam and Eve.

Frans Floris Adam and Eve
        Frans Floris Adam and Eve

Jean Baptiste Regnault produces the most dazzlingly sensual Aphrodite of all as well as a wonderful evocation of the dynamics between the three goddesses.

Jean Baptiste Regnault (1754 – 1829)
                             Jean Baptiste Regnault (1754 – 1829)

Aphrodite has an almost narcissistic preoccupation with her own beauty and appears to be ignoring the offer of the apple from the smitten Paris. Hera and Athena are gathering up their clothes and leaving and disgust. Hera appears to be turning and saying, “Well, what would you expect?  The hussy has no shame.”

There is a similar dynamic in Fabre’s painting. The two rejected goddesses are showing their contempt as Paris awards the apple to Aphrodite.  However, the little Cupid is clearly pleased with the decision.

François Xavier Fabre

Peter Paul Rubens painted the scene a number of times.

about 1597-9Peter_Paul_Rubens_115

His interest was clearly in the nuances of the portrayal of the female nude as is shown by the similarities between the two paintings.


There have been more modern interpretations of the judgement of Paris. Enrique Simonet’s furnishing is a typically early 20th century soft core porn version of the legend.

It’s an interesting combination of middle-class concepts of beauty and propriety personified in the stances of Hera and Athena  who are standing slightly bashful in the background, while the pure and white Aphrodite stands exposing (and offering?) herself to the view of the sunburnt goat-herd who is appraising her. It’s a collision of the natural purity of women and the savage and animal lust of men. A trite but powerful metaphor of the views of the time.

Enrique Simonet 1904
                                                                Enrique Simonet 1904

The version by Max Klinger is far more unequivocal about the nature of female sexuality.

Max Klinger

In this painting, Aphrodite is unashamedly demonstrating her charms to Paris while the other two goddesses prepare to do the same. It’s a male sexual fantasy dressed up as a Greek myth. Not great art, but an interesting social and artistic comment.

The Judgement of Paris has survived because, like all the myths that have survived, it taps into primordial and archetypal impulses and emotions. It is about the random nature of human affairs, in this case the will of the gods and the impact that they have on the lives of mortals.

In casting the Gods in the human form, their actions become comprehensible in terms of the experience of ordinary humans. This is the key to mythology.

There are themes that run through the Judgement of Paris, sex, infidelity, male power, female power, female cupidity and male stupidity that resonate thousands of years later.

The work of the great artists serves to highlight key moments in these myths and illustrate the central themes that run through the narrative.

It’s a powerful  example of how the combination of word and image can present  such powerful psychological insights into the human condition

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