Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, who was living as a shepherd, was sought out by Mercury, the messenger of the gods, and asked to decide which of the three goddesses, Venus, Juno or Minerva, was the most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, who rewarded him with the beautiful Helen, wife of the Spartan King Menelaus. Paris’s abduction of Helen led to the downfall of Troy. The story told in Dares of Phrygia’s sixth-century Bellum Troianum was modified in later accounts, such as the influential Historia destructionis Troiae by Guido delle Colonne in the thirteenth century. In Guido’s version, Paris is a knight out hunting who, tying his horse to a tree, fell asleep and dreamed that Mercury presented the three goddesses to him; Paris asked them to put aside their clothes, and when he chose Venus he was released from sleep. Cranach seems to follow this version here; his knight is lost in the forest and has a dazed appearance, as if awakening from a dream.
Cranach has painted Mercury as an old man who hands him a crystal orb which is inscribed ‘MONET’ (‘he (or it) warns or advises’ in Latin), perhaps referring to Paris’s task of judging the three goddesses in front of him. As in other versions by Cranach, the goddesses are hard to identify, but it is probably Venus who stands closest to Paris, casting a knowing look at the viewer and at whom Cupid aims his arrow.
The story, which had many interpretations, was popular at the Saxon court, where Frederick The Wise traced his lineage to the Trojans, as did other German princely families. The Judgement of Paris was the most represented subject in the palace at Wittenberg and exemplified central ideas of the philosophers and humanists, especially those in the circle of Conrad Celtis, for whom Cranach provided work in Vienna. For Celtis, following the Florentine philosopher Marsilio Ficino, the story represented an allegory of the choice between the contemplative, active and sensual life. The ideal choice was to combine all three: Juno’s power, Minerva’s wisdom and Venus’s pleasure. The humanist Nikolaus Marschalk (c.1455-1525) had made a famous speech on the occasion of Wittenberg University’s first baccalaureate in 1503, with the ‘Judgement of Paris’ as his subject. Like Hercules at the crossroads, the moment of choice is shown in Cranach’s painting, and, as in the medieval tradition, Paris has been lost and is looking for the right path. It is perhaps for this reason that the goddesses seem so hard to differentiate and are more like the Three Graces, for one should choose the harmony of all three different ways to live. Paris looks anxious because of his dream-like state and the difficulty of his choice.
From 1520 Cranach was the owner of the only apothecary shop in Wittenberg and presumably had some interest in alchemy. Mercury’s white beard has been interpreted as ‘white Mercury’, the final stage of the making of the philosopher’s stone. The crystal orb resembles an alchemical vessel and the red worn by Paris and Cupid’s wings have also been given an alchemical meaning.
As early as 1508 Cranach had produced a large woodcut of the subject, bearing the electoral and ducal arms of Saxony, and he went on to produce at least 12 painted versions, each of which was different. In the present work infrared reflectography shows that some slight adjustments were made in the final painting so that the figures could interact together in the confined space. Similarly, foliage trees and branches were cancelled out in paint to give more space in the sky. The figures of Venus and Mercury can be found in other versions. The present version has been catalogued as a late workshop production after 1537, but the quality is closer to the paintings c.1530-35.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011
First recorded in The Royal Collection during the reign of James II