The Judgement of Paris (1632-6) by Rubens
Interpretation of Baroque Mythological Painting

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The Judgement of Paris (1632-6) by Rubens

The Judgement of Paris (1632-6) by Rubens. National Gallery, London.
Regarded as one of the greatest paintings of the Flemish Baroque.


Analysis of The Judgement of Paris
Interpretation of Other Baroque Paintings


Name: The Judgement of Paris (1632-6)
Artist: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Medium: Panel painting, oil on oak
Genre: Mythological painting
Movement: Flemish Baroque painting
Location: National Gallery, London

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).


The leading representative of Baroque art in Flanders, Rubens was responsible for a large quantity of history painting including some of the greatest religious paintings of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In addition he is famous for his Rubenesque female nudes and other types of figure painting. Influenced by the Italian Renaissance - in particular the colorito of Venetian altarpieces and other works - and by Caravaggio (1571-1610), he enjoyed a highly successful career as one of the great Flemish painters to royal courts and religious bodies across Europe. For other important examples of Baroque painting by Rubens, see: Samson and Delilah (1609-10); Descent from the Cross (Rubens) (1612-14) and The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618).

Analysis of The Judgement of Paris by Rubens

The Greek mythological story of the Judgment of Paris appears briefly in Homer's Iliad (24.25–30), and is mentioned by several later writers including Ovid and Lucian. Images of the story appeared regularly on Greek Pottery as early as the sixth century BCE, and the theme continued to be popular in the art of classical antiquity, before enjoying a major revival in Renaissance art - not least because it afforded artists the opportunity to depict three female nudes. The subject was painted many times by Rubens himself: see, for instance, the 1599 version in London's National Gallery; the 1606 version in the Prado Museum, Madrid; the 1606 version in the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna; the 1636 version in the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden; and the second version (1638-9) in the Prado.

Note: Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, was abandoned as an infant due to ill omens associated with his birth, but was rescued by shepherds (he was later received home again by his father Priam). Later, he was chosen by Zeus (Jupiter) to decide which of three Greek (Roman) goddesses was the most beautiful: Aphrodite (Venus), Hera (Juno) or Athena (Minerva). He chose Aphrodite and awarded her a golden apple. Helped by Aphrodite, Paris then seduced Helen (the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta), which - aggravated by the discontent of Hera and Athena - precipitated the Trojan War.



Rubens' painting depicts the moment when Paris awards the golden apple to Aphrodite. She is standing between Athena and Hera, while Hermes, the messenger of the gods, stands behind Paris. Visible in the clouds above is the Greek Fury, Alecto. As mentioned above, the scenario gives the artist an easy opportunity to paint three nudes, and Rubens takes full advantage to create the voluptuous female figures for which he is famous. They present the image of ideal female beauty which was used by both Leonardo (1452-1519) (Mona Lisa, 1503-6) and Titian (c.1485-1576) (Bacchus and Ariadne, 1523).

Aphrodite (Venus), goddess of love, beauty and fertility, has roses (love symbols) in her hair, as well as pearls that recall the legend of her birth. She tells Paris that if he chooses her, she will make Helen (the most beautiful woman in the world) fall in love with him. Her bribe succeeds; Paris chooses her as the most beautiful goddess. Athena (Minerva), goddess of war and wisdom, stands to the left, recognizable from the helmet and shield lying next to her, the latter featuring an image of Medusa the snake-haired demon whom Athena had helped to kill. On Aphrodite's right wearing a velvet wrap is Hera (Juno), the wife of Zeus. Rubens cleverly manages to paint the same female model viewed from all sides. Athena is seen from the front; Aphrodite from the side; and Hera from behind. The model is probably Rubens' second wife, Helene Fourment.

Meanwhile, Paris, in an allusion to his birth is dressed in the clothes of a shepherd and armed with a crook. Hermes, standing alongside him is wearing a winged hat and holding a caduceus - a wand wrapped with two serpents. On the far left is Cupid, god of love, shown here as a young child. Like Mercury he too has wings as well as a quiver of golden arrows to make people fall in love. He will soon be despatched by Aphrodite to Helen in order to make her fall in love with Paris. Compare: Amor Vincit Omnia (Victorious Cupid) (1602, Gemaldegalerie SMPK, Berlin) by Caravaggio (1573-1610).

Soaring above the scene, with a snake in her hand is Alecto the Fury. She has already summoned thunder clouds to indicate that trouble is not far off. This sets the scene for the final part of the saga - not shown by Rubens - the abduction of Helen from her home in Sparta by Paris. Although, as promised by Aphrodite, Helen falls in love with him, her abduction leads to war.

Like a number of Old Masters, Rubens used colour to create the illusion of space. In the background, for instance, the bright blue of the distant hills and sky recedes creating the impression of depth. In the middleground, green is the dominant colour, while the darkest reds and browns appear in the foreground, making it feel closer. For more about colour in painting, see also: Titian and Venetian Colour Painting (1500-76).

Interpretation of Other Baroque Paintings

Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39) by Pietro da Cortona.
Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Judith Beheading Holofernes (1620) by Artemisia Gentileschi
Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Christ Crucified (1632) by Velazquez.
Prado, Madrid.

The Surrender of Breda (1634-5) by Velazquez.
Prado, Madrid.

Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5) by Nicolas Poussin.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Et in Arcadia Ego (1637) by Nicolas Poussin.
Louvre, Paris.

Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1688-94) by Andrea Pozzo.
Jesuit Church of Sant'Ignazio, Rome.


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