Cranach became a celebrated court painter for the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg. Among the most popular mythological scenes produced by him and his workshop for his courtly patrons were those featuring Venus, in particular, the Judgment of Paris. Painted about 1528, this picture depicts Paris, dressed in a contemporary suit of armor, as he deliberates over the fairest of three goddesses: Minerva, Venus, and Juno. While Mercury stands nearby holding the coveted prize—a golden apple (here transformed into a glass orb)—Cupid aims his arrow at Venus, signaling Paris’s decision in favor of the goddess of love.
Among the most popular mythological scenes produced by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop were those featuring Venus and, in particular, the Judgment of Paris. This legend relates how the goddess of discord Eris, peeved at not having been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, attended unannounced and threw her golden apple, inscribed "to the fairest," into the midst of the guests. Juno, Venus, and Minerva all claimed ownership of the prize, and Jupiter decreed that their dispute could be settled only by Paris, son of the king of Troy. After Mercury brought the goddesses to the Trojan prince, each offered him a bribe: Juno, power; Minerva, all human knowledge; and Venus, the love of Helen of Troy, wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus, and the world's most beautiful woman. Paris chose Venus and embarked for Sparta to abduct Helen and bring her to Troy, thus instigating the Trojan War.
In the mid-twelfth century, the French poet Benôit de Saint-Maure wrote the Roman de Troie (Romance of Troy), which was based on the purportedly eyewitness account of the destruction of the city by Dares Phrygius, a Trojan priest of Hephaestus. Another well-known and widely disseminated romance was Guido delle Colonne's late-thirteenth-century Historia Destructionis Troiae (History of the Destruction of Troy). Cranach must have known either Dares's account or the medieval romances, for his Judgment of Paris follows two distinctive features of their texts: Paris as a hunter, not a shepherd as in other ancient sources, and Paris's encounter with Mercury and the three goddesses in a dream. Guido's text also provides other specific details adopted by Cranach: the setting in the groves of Mount Ida, the horse tied near a tree, and the proviso that the goddesses present themselves naked to Paris.
Cranach's depiction of the theme was also influenced by early prints, including an engraving of about 1460 by the Master of the Banderoles. A woodcut illustration from the 1502 Wittenberg edition of Dares Phrygius's Bellum Troianum (Trojan War) also provided a visual precedent for Cranach's first image on the theme, a signed and dated woodcut of 1508, in which the goddesses have just disrobed. For the goddesses' poses, the artist was inspired by Jacopo de' Barbari's Victory and Fame, an engraving of 1498–1500 that circulated in Nuremberg. Cranach's woodcut in turn served as the model for at least a dozen painted versions by himself and his workshop, beginning with the artist's panel of about 1510 (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth) and including the present work, a considerably later adaptation of about 1528.
A free sketch of the composition, dated by most scholars between 1527 and 1530, probably served as a preliminary idea for the MMA painting and other close variants. Although the three goddesses have sometimes been thought to be portraits of women at the Saxon court, their faces appear too generalized for such an assertion. The figures depicted here are only slightly differentiated, perhaps to emphasize the difficulty of Paris's decision. Which is Juno and which is Minerva is unclear, but the central figure must be Venus. It is she who is the most suggestively alluring, and it is also she who points to Cupid, who in turn prepares to shoot his arrow at her.
One of the most intriguing questions concerning this work is its deeper meaning in the context of its own time. The theme was popular with German humanists, and Matsche (1996) has argued for an understanding of Paris's dilemma in the context of the difficult choice of which type of life to lead: the vita contemplativa, represented by Minerva, the vita activa, represented by Juno, or the vita voluptaria, represented by Venus. The contemplative life was the most highly regarded, and also the most arduous; Paris's misguided choice may have served as a warning to the viewer against Venus's power and sensual pleasures. A challenge to the humanist interpretation was offered by Hinz (1994), who argued that for such an interpretation to be valid, the goddesses would have to be clearly identifiable in order to link them with the alternative ways of life. Instead, he regarded the similarity of the goddeses as an attempt to "provoke a play of ideas and meanings"—and perhaps to introduce an element of ambiguity—which has little to do with the rigorous humanism found in images by contemporary artists such as Dürer and Burgkmair.
The theme may also be understood in a social-historical rather than philosophical context. El-Himoud-Sperlich (1977) has interpreted Cranach's Paris paintings as decorations for bedchambers, where they may have served not as warning to men, but as confirmations for women that their husbands had renounced what advantages might be gained by marrying a smarter or wealthier mate, instead choosing for love and beauty.
Interesting but controversial is a third interpretation offered by Nickel (1981) of the work as alchemical in meaning, in which the goddesses represent the three stages of the so-called Great Work—that is, the conversion of base metals into gold. His meticulous argument has yet to be supported or refuted by other scholars on the basis of subsequent discussions of alchemy.
Clearly, there is a rich array of possible meaning for the theme. Its popularity, evidenced by the significant number of surviving examples, perhaps attests to multivalent interpretations in Cranach's own time.
[2013; adapted from Ainsworth 2013]
The beech panel support is made of four vertically oriented, radial-cut boards with skewed joints. Dendrochronology on the rightmost board indicated an earliest possible fabrication date of 1526. The panel has been trimmed to the original image area, thinned to .8 centimeters, and cradled. A wood strip approximately 21 centimeters long and 1.8 centimeters wide has been inserted along the top left edge. Strips of wood were added to the left, right, and bottom edges. The x-radiograph shows a small amount of tow, applied with no apparent correlation to the construction of the support. The numerous losses and repairs in the upper third of the painting are due to chronic blistering of the paint layers. This blistering and abrasion from harsh cleaning have disrupted the delicate modeling of the goddess’s flesh, Mercury’s legs and hands, and Paris’s face. The veil draped across the middle goddess is damaged. The better-preserved passages in the red garments, including the feather hat worn by the middle goddess, Paris’s hat and robe, and Mercury’s red skirt fringe, display the typical, systematic technique characteristic of other paintings attributed to Cranach: an underpainting of dense black is followed by bright, opaque red, which is finished with transparent red lake glazes. A gray underpaint was used for the greenery of the landscape. Other hallmarks of Cranach’s technique include hair worked up from a nearly flat orange-brown, finished with delicate whorls of yellow, orange, and brown brushstrokes. Painted "countercurls" can be seen in the hair of two of the goddesses, a mannerism associated with the finest paintings produced by Cranach and his workshop. Infrared reflectography revealed linear contours drawn with a brush. The horse’s raised leg was drawn lower and further forward and the painted dead branches deviate slightly from the underdrawing. The underdrawn lines in the legs of the goddesses were intended to remain visible through the paint film to depict veins below the surface of the skin. [2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Signed (right foreground, on rock) with winged serpent
Freiherr von Lüttwitz, Lüttwitzhof, Mittelsteine, Glatz, Silesia (until 1889/90; sale, Lepke's, Berlin, 1889/90); Freiherr Konrad von Falkenhausen, Schloss Wallisfurth, Wallisfurth, Glatz (d. 1898); Fräulein E. Hubrich, Breslau, Silesia (by 1899–1900); [Georg Voss, Berlin]; Marczell von Nemes, Munich (by 1922; on loan to the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, 1922–24; his sale, Frederik Muller & Cie, Amsterdam, November 13–14, 1928, no. 51, sold to MMA)
Bennington, Vt. Bennington College. November 24–December 14, 1937, no catalogue?
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art Treasures of the Metropolitan," November 7, 1952–September 7, 1953, no. 102.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "German Drawings: Masterpieces from Five Centuries," May 10–June 10, 1956, suppl. no. 196.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 233.
Max J. Friedländer. "Die Cranach-Ausstellung in Dresden." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 22 (1899), p. 246, calls it a moderately good and probably original work by Cranach, dating from the 1530s.
Richard Förster. "Neue Cranachs in Schlesien." Schlesiens Vorzeit in Bild und Schrift 7 (1899), pp. 267–73, pl. 10, refutes Schuchardt's theory that Cranach's Judgment of Paris paintings actually represent the knight Albonack presenting his three daughters to King Alfred III of Mercia [Christian Schuchardt, "Lucas Cranach des Aelteren, Leben und Werke," Leipzig, 1851 and 1871]; as sources for Cranach's interpretation of the Paris theme, cites an engraving by the Master of the Banderoles, a woodcut from Sebastian Brant's "Aeneid" of 1502, and Guido de Columna's 1287 publication, "Historia destructionis Troiae" [German translation, 1477], which describes Paris awakening beneath a tree to find Mercury and the three goddesses before him.
Eduard Flechsig. Cranachstudien. Leipzig, 1900, p. 282, no. 121, attributes this picture to Hans Cranach.
Rudolf Ameseder. "Ein Parisurteil Lukas Cranachs d. Ä. in der Landesgalerie zu Graz." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 33 (1910), p. 70.
Wegweiser durch die Sammlungen des Germanischen Museums im Neubau am Kornmarkt. Nuremberg, 1922, p. 56, lists this painting as hanging in the Cranach gallery of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, lent by Marcel von Nemes.
[A. L.] M[ayer]. "Zur Auktion Nemes." Pantheon 2 (September 1928), p. 452, ill. p. 448, calls it "The Dream of the Knight".
Max J. Friedländer. Cable to MMA. October 24, 1928, calls it a genuine and fine Cranach, rather well-preserved.
H[arry]. B. W[ehle]. "A Judgment of Paris, by Cranach." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 24 (March 1929), pp. 86, 88, ill. p. 87, dates this picture about 1527 and calls it "one of several variations on this favorite theme of Cranach".
Harry B. Wehle. "A Judgment of Paris by Cranach." Metropolitan Museum Studies 2 (1929–30), pp. 1–12, ill. opp. p. 1, dates it about 1528, based on its closeness to another Judgment of Paris painting by Cranach, formerly in the von Hirsch collection [now Kunstmuseum Basel]; sees the MMA painting as characteristic of the artist's late style and refutes Flechsig's attribution [see Ref. 1900] to Hans Cranach.
A. Philip McMahon. "Prints—Selected Masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum." Parnassus 1 (March 15, 1929), pp. 14, 19, ill. cover, mentions it in relation to Cranach's print of the same theme.
Bryson Burroughs. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Catalogue of Paintings. 9th ed. New York, 1931, p. 75.
Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach. Berlin, 1932, p. 68, no. 209, ill., erroneously as dated 1529; provide detailed provenance.
M. R. Rogers. "The Judgment of Paris, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)." Bulletin of the City Art Museum of St. Louis 17 (January 1932), p. 30, mentions it as a slightly different version of the Judgment of Paris paintings in the City Art Museum of St. Louis and formerly in the von Hirsch collection [now Kunstmuseum Basel].
Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, p. 38, no. 98, erroneously asserts that it is dated 1529 and that the support is canvas.
Hans Posse. Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 2nd ed. Vienna, 1943, pp. 32, 61, no. 86, ill., erroneously as dated 1529 and painted on canvas; observes that in this picture, Cranach revisits the subject of his 1508 woodcut, using it as an opportunity to create a new type of female nude
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 200–202, ill., remark that this was a favorite subject of Cranach's, one that "offered him opportunities to paint his winsome female nudes (not without a suspicion of parody) in a setting of make-believe and enchantment"; call the MMA painting closely similar to the von Hirsch version of 1528, and regard it as a "work of the same time".
Dietrich von Bothmer. "The Classical Contribution to Western Civilization." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 7 (April 1949), p. 212, ill. p. 213 (detail).
Gabriel Rouchès. Cranach l'Ancien, 1472–1553. Paris, 1951, pl. 42.
Art Treasures of the Metropolitan: A Selection from the European and Asiatic Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1952, p. 227, no. 102, colorpl. 102.
Nanette B. Rodney. "The Judgment of Paris." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 11 (October 1952), pp. 63–64, ill. p. 61 and cover (color detail).
Johannes Jahn. "Der Weg des Künstlers." Lucas Cranach der Ältere: Der Künstler und seine Zeit. Ed. Heinz Lüdecke. Berlin, 1953, p. 72, notes that the tree motif links Cranach's early, mature, and late works.
Marcel Brion. German Painting. New York, 1959, p. 54.
Jakob Rosenberg. Die Zeichnungen Lucas Cranachs D. Ä. Berlin, 1960, p. 23 under no. 46, lists it in relation to Cranach's drawing of the same theme (Herzog Anton-Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig).
Alfred Werner. German Painting: The Old Masters. New York, 1964, pp. 28, 43, no. 15, slide 15 (color).
Friedrich Thöne. Lucas Cranach der Ältere. Königstein, 1965, p. 6, ill. p. 79.
Pierre du Colombier. "Friedrich Thöne, 'Lucas Cranach der Ältere' ." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 67 (March 1966), p. 189, compares the MMA painting with the Braunschweig drawing, suggesting that Cranach exaggerated elements in the painting for comic effect.
N. Nikulin. Lucas Cranach. Leningrad [St. Petersburg], 1976, p. 18.
Inge El-Himoud-Sperlich. Das Urteil des Paris: Studien zur Bildtradition des Themas im 16. Jh. PhD diss.Munich, 1977, pp. 37–38, 45–46, 55–56, 59, 61–62, 75, 102, 163, fig. 43, dates it 1528–29; interprets Cranach's Judgment of Paris paintings as mythological marriage or betrothal subjects, with Venus shown as a chaste bride-to-be who does not initiate courtship, but rather is struck by Cupid's arrow; claims that Mercury wears the fantastic costume of a herald in contemporary theater.
Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. The Paintings of Lucas Cranach. rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y., 1978, p. 120, no. 254, ill.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 260–62, fig. 470 (color).
Gottfried Biedermann. "Die 'Paris-Urteile' Lukas Cranachs d. Ä." Pantheon 39 (October–December 1981), pp. 312–13, fig. 7, places it shortly after the version dated 1530 in the Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, and considers it the formal and iconographic consummation of Cranach's treatment of the subject.
Helmut Nickel. "'The Judgment of Paris' by Lucas Cranach the Elder: Nature, Allegory, and Alchemy." Metropolitan Museum Journal 16 (1981), pp. 117–29, figs. 1–2 (overall and detail), notes that Cranach and his workshop produced about 12 painted versions and 2 woodcuts of this theme; observes that the background in the MMA painting is an accurate depiction of the Elbe River and mountain range, the Elbsandsteingebirge, near Dresden; suggests Cranach was influenced by a 1526 drawing of the Paris theme by Johannes Hoch, illustrating a 1522 manuscript on alchemy, and proposes that he intended the MMA Judgment of Paris in particular as an alchemical allegory.
Larry Silver. "Early Northern European Paintings." Bulletin of the Saint Louis Art Museum, n.s., 16 (Summer 1982), p. 35, fig. 15, refers to this picture and the Karlsruhe and Basel panels as replicas from Cranach's large workshop.
Introduction by James Snyder inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 15, 109, colorpl. 75.
Patricia Campbell Warner. "Fetters of Gold: The Jewelry of Renaissance Saxony in the Portraits of Cranach the Elder." Dress 16 (1990), p. 23, fig. 4.
Hubert Damisch. Le jugement de Pâris. Paris, 1992, pp. 126–38 [on the Paris theme in general], ill. p. 134 [English ed., 1996, pp. 163–71, 179–81, fig. 44], discusses the Judgment of Paris theme in the context of the Lutheran Reformation which was "actively supported by the Cranach studio," observing that "in this imagery rich in proto-feminist messages... humor, if not derision, often prevails over all moralizing intent".
Franz Matsche. "Humanistische Ethik am Beispiel der mythologischen Darstellungen von Lucas Cranach." Humanismus und Renaissance in Ostmitteleuropa vor der Reformation. Ed. Winfried Eberhard and Alfred A. Strnad. Cologne, 1996, p. 67, fig. 9, discusses the philosophy of Conrad Celtis, in which one must choose from among three types of life, the "vita contemplativa," "vita activa," and "vita voluptuaria" and considers it fundamental to Cranach's depiction of the Paris theme.
Charles Talbot inThe Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 2, Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-Century European Paintings. New York, 1998, p. 52.
Burton L. Dunbar. The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: German and Netherlandish Paintings, 1450–1600. Kansas City, Mo., 2005, pp. 85, 88, fig. 4e, considers this painting the "single major source" for Cranach's 1535 painting of the Three Graces (Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City) and concludes that it must thus pre-date 1535.
Maryan W. Ainsworth inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 5, 54–58, 286–87, no. 11, ill. (color).
Norbert Schneider. Von Bosch zu Bruegel: Niederländische Malerei im Zeitalter von Humanismus und Reformation. Berlin, 2015, pp. 153, 315, fig. 102 (color).
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 276, no. 181, ill. pp. 185, 276 (color).
Artist: Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, Kronach 1472–1553 Weimar)Date: 1532–33Medium: Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, with letterpress-printed paper labelsAccession: 71.128On view in:Not on view