The Judgment of Paris – François-Xavier Fabre

Do you ever have one of those days where you think…maybe I made the wrong choice?  Perhaps you put on a pair of shoes that are really uncomfortable, or you told someone some advice that you later felt was probably inappropriate, or maybe you helped pick out the fairest woman alive, not knowing that your decision would bring down the Trojan empire… Because that is the type of day Paris was having.

Fabre was a French artist who painted in the neoclassical style, favouring historic scenes for the subject.  He painted this in 1808 and is oil on canvas.

To fully appreciate this painting I am going to have to break down the characters one by one then tell you the story as they all have their own elements which lead up to the epic battle of Troy.

Starting from the left…

The male seated – This is Paris.  He was a Trojan prince, born to King Priam and Hecuba.  Just before the birth of Paris, Hecuba had a dream that she gave birth to a branding iron, which then burned down the entire city of Troy.  With this in mind, when she gave birth to Paris, she promptly requested that a servant – Agelaus, throw him out onto Mount Ida to die.  This is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, and by now we should be getting the idea that babies cast out and down mountainsides don’t tend to die.  True to form, Paris survived for five days as he was suckled by a friendly passing bear.  Agelaus found Paris alive and well and decided to take him home and bring him up as his own son.  Paris grew into a devastatingly beautiful man, but lived the humble live of a herdsman…up to the point of this painting.  Paris does eventually get recognised for who he really is when King Priam sends a servant to take one of Paris’ favourite bulls to be a prize at some funeral games for his dead son.  Paris determined to get his bull back (ironically at the games held in his own honour), that he attended the games and out did everyone, rousing anger in his unknown brothers, and they try to attack him.  Fleeing the games and taking sanctuary in at the alter of Zeus, his sister Cassandra recognises him for who he is and stops the other brothers attacking him.  Priam and Hecuba then welcome Paris back in to the family fold – the prophetic dream long forgotten.

Next to him we see Aphrodite and Eros – little need to be said about this pair.

In the white robes and feathered helmet is Athena – Goddess of war who was born from the head of Zeus

In the red robes, we see Hera – Goddess of birth and marriage.  She was the sister and wife of Zeus.

Finally, up in the sky, Hermes appears to be lounging around on some clouds.  He was the gods herald and messenger.

That’s the introductions done, but how did all of these people end up on the hillside of Mount Ida?

Peleus (a mortal) was set to wed Thetis (the sea goddess), all the invitations had gone out and everyone had accepted, with the exception of Eris (also known as Strife), because she had a reputation and no one wanted her at a wedding, as she was one of ‘those types of guests’… The big day arrived and everyone gathered, bringing gifts.  Eris, who had heard about the wedding also turned up, no gift in hand.  As the guests mingled at the happy event, Eris was angry at the event and threw in to the gathering a golden apple, which was inscribed with the words ‘for the fairest’ (known as the apple of discord).  One seeing the apple land, the three goddesses Aphrodite, Hera and Athena, jumped up to claim it.  Bickering between them ensued.  On seeing this, Zeus then instructed Hermes to take them to Mount Ida and find Paris, who could make the decision as to who should be the rightful owner of the apple.

Paris, was quite happily tending his herd, when Hermes arrived with the three goddesses.  Hermes explained what had happened, and while Paris thought about who should be the rightful owner, the three goddesses offered him different bribes to try and sway his decision.  Athena offered him victory in war; well at this time, war wasn’t really on the horizon for Paris, so this didn’t really feel like a lucrative offering.  Hera offered him imperial power – again, he was quite happy tending his sheep, so what would he want with this?  Aphrodite, offered him something quite different.  She offered Paris the most beautiful woman.  This just so happened to be Helen, who was married to King Menelaus of Sparta.  Well, Paris was already married to a nymph named Oenone, but what red blooded mail could resist the offer of having the most beautiful woman in the world?

Paris made his decision – Aphrodite was the rightful owner of the apple, seeing as he was now Prince of Troy, and not really just a herdsman, he decided to visit Sparta to claim his prize.  Oenone and Cassandra really tried to talk him out of doing this, as they could see bad things on the horizon, but his mind was set, so off he went.

Menelaus welcomed Paris to his kingdom and entertained him justly for nine days.  On the tenth day, Menelaus had to leave to attend his grandfather’s funeral in Crete.  This gave Paris the perfect opening to woo Helen and elope back to Troy with her.

Here starts the 10 year event of the Trojan war, and something I will save for another day.

Fabre paints the defining moment in this story, showing Paris taking handing the apple to Aphrodite.  Clinging to her legs is Eros, painted with the intention of showing the intervention of Aphrodite in the affair that takes place between Paris and Helen.  Hera and Athena are depicted in garb which is suited to their offerings, Athena in her battle attire and Hera in regal robes.  To the right hand side of Hera a peacock is seen, echoing the royal aspects not only of Hera, but also of Paris’ new found prince status.  One the floor appears to the the torch of Olympus, this could be indicating Paris’ prowess in the recent funeral games, or that the god are intervening in Paris’ life to bring about the prophetic dream of his mother.

Hermes oversees the events from the sky, with this winged boots and helmet and the caduceus staff (entwined winged serpents).  The clouds that he appears against, seem to be dark, as if there is a storm brewing – which we know that Paris has made a fated decision, which will bring about the demise of Troy.

The style is typical of neoclassicism, with the dramatic positioning of each figure and a vast scenery background.  You can feel as though you are high on a mountainside from the rolling expanse of landscape which can be seen in the background.

Many other paintings have been created for ‘The judgement of Paris’, and usually all three women are naked and in fairly provocative poses.  I find this picture more dramatic as only Aphrodite is using her feminine charm to sway Paris, which is true to the myth.  The other two have no need to be naked, as they were offering power.

I really appreciate the symbolism which is used within painting, it really brings the judgement to life for me.

What do you think of this painting?  Why not tell me in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?


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