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Wtewael’s sumptuous picture, full of soft, subtle colour, shows the precursor to the mythological Trojan War. Jupiter, ruler of the gods, has sent Eris (the personification of strife) to provoke a quarrel about which goddess is the most beautiful: Minerva, goddess of war, with her helmet and spear; Juno, Jupiter’s wife, her peacock in the trees above; or Venus, goddess of love, with pearls in her hair.
The shepherd Paris, in reality a Trojan prince, was chosen to be the judge; he hands Venus the golden apple marked ‘To the Fairest’. Venus had offered him Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and the most beautiful woman in the world, as a bribe, sowing the seeds of the war. But for the moment, Paris' flock and his dog lie down in the midst of peace and plenty – fur nestles against flesh, silk against petals and luscious shells among feathery grasses.
Wtewael’s sumptuous picture, full of soft, subtle colour, shows the precursor to one of the most famous wars in mythology. The Greek poet Homer first told the story of the Trojan War in the Iliad, though there are now many versions.
In the background, among the trees, a wedding party of naked nymphs and satyrs is halted, frozen like white statues beneath the commanding arm of Eris (the personification of strife). Jupiter, ruler of the gods, has sent her to provoke a quarrel about which goddess is the most beautiful: Minerva, goddess of war, with her helmet and spear, and her owl hovering overhead; Juno, Jupiter’s wife, her peacock in the trees above her; or Venus, goddess of love, with pearls in her hair. Jupiter chose the shepherd Paris, in reality a Trojan prince, to be the judge. Wtewael presents them naked as a bemused Paris offers Venus the golden apple marked ‘To the Fairest’.
The goddesses had cheated: they each offered Paris a bribe. Minerva offered him unlimited power, Juno offered him untold riches and Venus offered him Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and the most beautiful woman in the world – perhaps no contest to a young man. And so the seeds of the Trojan War were sown in Wtewael’s fertile paradise. Above her head cherubs prepare to crown Venus with laurels. Cupid, her son and god of erotic love, takes aim at Paris with his bow and arrow; Paris – and the world – is lost.
But for the moment, Paris‘ flock and his dog lie down in the midst of peace and plenty, with a friendly camel nearby. A nymph and a satyr flirt among flowers. Fur nestles against flesh, silk against petals, luscious shells among feathery grasses – but the wedding party look up in terror at Eris, their poses contorted and dramatic.
Wtewael painted the elongated forms and contrived, if graceful, poses of the three goddesses in the typically exaggerated Mannerist style, yet they are human and, with their glances, seemingly aware. Juno looks directly out at us, hand on hip, as if asking who could possibly agree with the verdict. Minerva’s softly curved position is hardly warlike, although she gazes across at Venus with a knowing stare. Venus reaches across her body to take the prize, her eyes slightly unfocused as if her mind is already elsewhere. Paris’ pose is designed to show off his muscular legs and gold sandals (and, incidentally, Wtewael’s skill in painting them).
The subject of the Judgement of Paris, giving prominence to the nude female figure from various angles, was popular in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. There are two in the National Gallery’s collection by Sir Peter Paul Rubens; one was probably made 1632-5 and the other about 1597-9. They are in a more realist style, without Wtewael’s love of detailed opulence and fantasy.
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