27 Mar 2020

There are numerous objects in the Kunstmuseum Basel that can be perceived as controversial, depending on one's point of view. One of them is Lucas Cranach's painting "The Judgement of Paris". It was part of last year's collection presentation "Controversial?".

Paris, prince of Troy, was to decide which of the three goddesses Hera, Athena or Aphrodite was the most beautiful and thus put an end to their dispute. He was to present the chosen one with a golden apple as a sign of his choice. The story tells how each of the goddesses tries to bribe Paris: Hera promises him dominion over the world, Athena wisdom, and Aphrodite assures him of the love of the most beautiful woman on earth, the beautiful Helen, who is, however, already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Paris chooses love, and Aphrodite keeps her promise: Helen leaves Sparta and follows Paris to Troy. Mythologically, this is the origin of the Trojan War, which will bring terrible suffering to the ancient world.

The story of the Paris Judgement became a moral example for choosing the right path in life and enjoyed great popularity in the art of the late Middle Ages and early modern times. The depiction of the moment when Paris hands over the apple to Aphrodite was intended to remind the viewer that every decision can have serious consequences and must therefore be carefully considered.

However, this conveyance of humanistically shaped values does not always seem to have been the real focus when dealing with the topic. This can be well observed in the example of Lucas Cranach, who dealt with the subject about a dozen times. The goddesses here do not bear any attributes, i.e. they cannot be clearly identified and look very similar to each other. Cranach thus deprives the painting of the narrative dimension of the bribes, which would, however, be of central importance for Paris' decision and ultimately for the moral message of the subject. Furthermore, the golden apple that Paris presents to Aphrodite is also missing. The moment of that choice with fatal consequences is not part of this painting. Instead of having to make a decision, Paris enjoys the sight of the three goddesses, who present themselves provocatively before him. They wear elegant hats and jewellery and pretend to cover their private parts with a transparent veil. We do not encounter a nudity that would release the scene of their time to emphasize their everlasting generality. Rather, the figures remain anchored in Cranach's time. In addition to the heavy knight's armour and with their fashionable accessories, the goddesses do not appear timelessly naked, but downright exposed.

So the critical question can be asked whether Cranach uses the morally charged image theme merely as an alibi to legitimize an erotic nude image. For it seems that the voyeuristic sensual pleasures are more in focus here than the moral message. The fact that the story tells him to paint not one but three goddesses suits the artist very well, because shown from different perspectives, he succeeds in creating a complete panorama of the female body.

Author: Seraina Werthemann, art historian and art mediator