The Judgement of Paris
This post will be slightly different than the previous ones, mostly because in a way it will go in two parts. More precisely, the entire first post in a way announces the second one, that will also be called The Judgment of Paris. Perhaps there will be a third one – who can say.
Anyhow, this particular post is dedicated to the mythical narrative that can so often be found in the visual arts, mostly paintings but also sculptures, photography, etc., the famous episode from the Greek myth that preceded – and caused – the Trojan war. Why do we write about here, on a site dedicated to Paris ? Because of a simple fact that in the Louvre museum there is couple (dozen) very interesting paintings, a Grecian urn (yes, like the one in the famous Keats poem) and a heart stopping mosaic that represent this theme. If you wish to check it out yourself, you have our warm recommendation – if you’d like us to take you there as a part of our Louvre museum visit, don’t hesitate to ask.
The Judgment of Paris, 550 B.C.E . This is the Grecian urn.
The Judgment of Paris, Antioch, 115-150 C.E. And this is the heart stopping mosaic we mentioned. Just look at it.
We shall briefly go over the narrative. Olympian gods throw a feast to celebrate the marriage of Thetis and Peleus (the parents of the greatest Greek hero under the walls of Troy, Achilles) without inviting Eris, the goddess of discord. Spurned by this snub move, the goddess does what she does best – sems the discord by throwing a golden apple at the party on which is written ‘to the fairest’. Three female deities thought the prize belonged to them – Hera, Zeus’ wife and the goddess of marriage, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, law and war and finally Aphrodites, the goddess of sex, lust and love. Zeus is called to arbitrate but he wisely passes the duty onto a mortal, Paris of Troy, famous for his just and unbiased judgement.
Seeing how these are the highly immoral and famously crooked Greek gods, that have zero claim (or ambition) to virtue, each goddess offers a bribe from their respective domains. Hera (the wife of Zeus and the queen of the universe) kingdom of Europe and Asia, basically most of the known world back in the day; Athena wisdom and war skill and finally Aphrodites the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, the queen of Sparta, married to Menelaus. Paris accords the apple to Aphrodites, and by doing so causes the wrath of the two other goddesses. As the story unravels, Paris meets Helen, they fall in love and flee to Troy – Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon assemble and army and pursue, ultimately bringing the destruction of the great city of Troy, their people and culture.
The Judgment of Paris, Claude Lorrain, 1645-1646.
That was the story, now for our interpretation. Here we have a typical situation from the Greek myth – a mortal human excels in virtue and by doing so, with no ulterior motives, brings himself into a catastrophic predicament. This example is particularly cruel and devastating as Paris did not only cause his own demise, but that of his people – his actions doomed his entire family and state. However, it was a case of “destiny calling” – given how the task was demanded of him by the ruler of the universe, Zeus, he couldn’t refuse. It is also very safe to assume that, had he given the apple to Athena or to Hera, he would equally provoke the wrath of the two other goddesses, who would proceed to punish him. Truly a no-win situation.
The Judgment of Paris, Jean-Antoine Watteau, 1718-1721.
This is a very staple of not only the Greek myth but the entire Greek ethos and, we can freely say, a cornerstone of their culture. You are placed in front of an impossible choice where every conceivable action on your behalf will bring about your doom. So what do you do ? Stoically speaking, you take it the best you can and that is just about everything that you can do. The very foundation of the Greek tragical sentiment comes from the notion that the mortals are little but toys in the hands of the cruel, whimsical gods. Could we therefore assume that the Greek recipe for success in life is utter mediocrity ? As if, sagely seek not the company of gods, do not excel in anything (as to not arouse their interest and cause yourself harm) ?
Not at all. The very essence of the Greek ethos as well as mythos is the life lived at its pinnacle. The very purpose of existence is to live to the fullest and surpass all your limitations, to experience the fullness of every aspect of your existence. The paradox of this situation if furthered by the fact that the greatest sin that you can commit, in the eyes of the gods and men alike, is hybris – an overstepping of your boundaries, exiting from the frame that was imposed to you again by the gods, the destiny and your very birth.
It is clear that the Greek myth (and therefore religion) and the Greek ethos as well, are all one massive double-bind.
François Xavier Fabre, 1808. A lovely example of the neoclassical style at its peak.
To live your life to the fullest and to make any sense of it, you must let go of any moderation and fully experience everything; yet by doing so, you are committing the ultimate crime. This notion is furthered by the Greek vision of the afterlife as of a very dull place. Except if you did something spectacular (and were therefore turned into a constellation, or a plant, or a natural phenomenon), or if you really spurned the gods good, you end up in Hades whether you were a good or a bad person, all the same. Hades is a dull place, with no sun, no emotions, good nor bad; you exist as a shadow and just wander about throughout the eternity in a perpetual sigh. Depressing, is it not? Still, fully knowing how bad the afterlife is, the Greeks would risk going there sooner than necessary just to squeeze another drop of joy from this place of existence, even at the always looming danger of committing hybris .
The Judgment of Paris, Guillaume Guillon Lethière, 1812. More of the same neoclassical goodness.
It is clear where Paris’ hybris was. He, as a mortal man, should not by any account have the capacity to judge godlike beauty. How can a mortal be a judge of the divine, especially in the Greek world. This has a lot to do with the Greek love for harmony and beauty – the noblest of all virtues. To be a judge of beauty, let alone divine, was a task of supreme importance. If we put this narrative in today’s perspective, given our image-obsessed existence (and we should, as the myths are equally relevant in all eras), we can better understand the problem at hand. For this, it would be interesting to lean on the famous feminist theory of the male gaze, presented by Laura Mulvey. In it, it is speculated that most narratives (not only in cinema, from where it originates, but in visual arts in general) the female is a passive object of the male observation. Women are framed by the man’s heterosexual perspective, in such a way that they only exist through this particular optics. It is as if the male gaze creates the woman that is being looked at, or at least contextualizes her, necessarily as a sexual object of his desire.
The Judgment of Paris, Paul Cézanne, 1862-1864. Veering towards the modern style. Also notice the scorned goddesses flipping the finger to Paris as they leave the scene.
This reading of the mythical narrative seems very appropriate, as most depictions of the scene of judgment of Paris show exactly this – a male is gazing at three beautiful women, trying to decide which one of them is the prettiest. The winner is (off course) the goddess of sex – as stated by Laura Mulvey, the gaze always contextualizes a woman as a sexual object whose sole purpose is to entice male heterosexual desire. Aphrodite being a winner of this contest makes perfect sense. Seen from that angle, it is very interesting to take a look at this work of art by Mary Ellen Croteau (shown further below to keep in coherence with the chronological lining of the paintings), also humorously titled The Judgment of Paris, but this time around obviously as a play of words, as Paris is the one being judged. We see a feminist reading of the myth, where Paris is a man put to shame by a female gaze, rendered impotent and reduced in all aspects. This is seen not only from his posture but also from the fact that he hides his genitals. In a patriarchal society, he should boastfully display his raging erection, which is obviously not the case here.
The Judgment of Paris, Pierre August Renoir, 1908. Further down the same line.
While it may seem that this reading is on point, it very much isn’t, as it reduces the narrative and obscures its meaning. Paris’ hybris was exactly in the fact that he dared gazing at the goddesses; not only that, but also that he dared judge them and deem two of them less beautiful. The very act of sexual objectification perpetrated by a young prince (be it an anachronous notion, as the pre-Greeks didn’t really have the same concept of feminism as we do today) is the one that destroys his life, family and country. There can be no greater punishment for this act. Here we need to recall on another Greek mythical narrative, that of Artemides being stumbled upon while bathing by the unassuming Acteon. Again, he did not wish to see the goddess naked – but he did, and was doomed. His fate was to be torn apart by his own dogs as the goddess of the hunt turned him into a stag. Now, we have that punishment for a man who unwillingly stumbled upon a naked goddess bathing – here, we have a situation where the goddesses themselves, of their own accord, are presenting their nude bodies for inspection and aesthetic judgment. Clearly, that act alone can not go unpunished.
The Judgment of Paris, Ivo Saliger, 1939. Speaking of punishment and of the neoclassicism, and of the punishing neoclassicism, here’s some Nazi art.
What this reading of the narrative gets very wrongly is also the position of power. The feminist theory suggests that the woman is the mainstream heterosexual patriarchal narrative is objectified and therefore presented as a commodity, only there to serve the man. She is placed under a man, as the one who gazes (the camera as well as the voyeuristic spectator) is in the position of power. However, Paris here is placed in a very temporary, very arbitrary and ultimately deceitful position of power (the judge of a beauty pageant). The women in question are all goddesses whereas he is a mere mortal, and they can destroy him, as they ultimately do, without a second thought or a slightest effort. So the inversion suggested by this painting makes little sense. The power lies in the one who is being looked at. Not only that (s)he is in the center of attention, but she is a god, whereas he is a mortal. The gap between the stars of the play and the silent spectator in the dark anonymity of the audience has never been greater – certainly if we remember that the two out of three stars of this play wreak havoc and kill not only the audience that acts as a judge, but their family and the entire state as well.
The Judgment of Paris, Adolf Ziegler, 1939. Further illustrating the notion of the ruin of the state and of its people, another example of the Nazi art.
The mythical narrative in general, not only the Greek, can get really subversive that way. Although it is supposed to be the vehicle of the dominant patriarchal ideology (which is not – the facticity of the subject matter is much more nuanced), it has a lot of cul de sacs and the narrative offshoots that point towards the exact opposite. Here, the male is obviously not in the position of power. Zeus, the supreme ruler of the universe and the embodiment of patriarchy, does not wish to get embroiled in the judgement of the female beauty, because he knows that even he cannot escape the wrath of the sore losers.
The Judgment of Paris, Mary Ellen Croteau, 1997. Analyzed above.
So why is this motif so popular with the arts, not only in the classical era, but the renaissance, neoclassical, baroque and even medieval? What it relates about the nature of beauty and the nature of the aesthetical judgment? Acting as art critics, professional or not, are we all placing ourselves in the position of Paris, that of the very temporary power but ultimate ruin – especially if we spurn the vain artist ? Our suggestion (as there can be no definitive answers), is based rather in anthropology than in philosophy of aestheticism. The very nature of beauty is dangerous.
The notions of beauty and of violence as very closely linked. Let us take a look at the three goddesses competing for the title of the prettiest. Athena is overtly the goddess of war, intelligence, laws and wisdom – always represented with a helmet, a spear and a shield. Hera is not only the goddess of marriage, but rather the goddess of marital discord – vain, jealous, scheming, vengeful and cruel – she is the incarnation of (marital) violence and the passive (and active) aggression. Aphrodite is the goddess of sex that of all the gods had the most brutal, gory and violent conception (we cover this in great detail in our Orsay museum visit – be sure to check it out if you wish to learn more, or I guess you can just google it all the same, the choice is yours). So to fully understand this calm and harmonious scene of a mortal/divine beauty pageant, we need to be aware of the carnage that follows. One can not go without the other – in the simple and elevated beauty of these lovely drawings and classical composition is the announcement of war, great violence and tragedy waiting to happen.
The Judgment of Paris, Eleanor Antin, 2007. This one (strangely) got it quite right.