The Judgement of Paris

The Judgement of Paris, Harry Morley, 1929, FA001004
The Judgement of Paris, Harry Morley, 1929, FA001004

On Thursday 5 May registered electors in Brighton & Hove will have the chance to vote in both a local election and a national referendum. The decisions they make will determine the way the city is run for the next four years, and will shape the way future national governments are elected. As a voter, it can seem like a heavy responsibility. But as you pause at the ballot box, spare a thought for the young man depicted in this painting.

Harry Morley’s Judgement of Paris tells of an episode in Greek mythology that had fatal repercussions. Paris, a prince of Troy, had been abandoned as a baby after his father, King Priam, learned of a prophecy that he would cause the downfall of Troy. Raised as a shepherd, Paris’s innate nobility surfaced in an unusual sense of fairness. This reputation came to the gods’ attention when his prize bull was beaten in a contest by the disguised form of Ares, the god of war. Rather than contesting the result, Paris chose to graciously accept defeat.

Zeus, the chief Olympian god, asked Paris to settle a long-running dispute. Years earlier, he had held a banquet to mark the wedding of Peleus and the sea-nymph Thetis. In order not to spoil the occasion, Zeus forbid the goddess of discord, Eris, from attending. Determined to disrupt the event, Eris threw a golden apple into the banqueting hall. The apple was marked ‘for the fairest one’ and immediately caused a squabble. Three goddesses fought over the apple for many years: Hera, the wife of Zeus; Athena, the goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Tired of the dispute, Zeus asked the fair-minded Paris to judge. All three goddesses tried to gain his favour with promises. Hera offered him vast kingdoms; Athena proffered wisdom and skill in war; Aphrodite promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite.

Although he chose the least martial option, Paris’s decision had devastating consequences. Once restored as a prince of Troy, Paris was granted the love of Helen, the wife of the Spartan king, Menelaus. Enraged, the Greeks raised an enormous army to take Helen back. For ten long years war waged between Europe and Asia. Eventually, Paris was killed and Troy was utterly destroyed.

This episode has proven popular with artists, including Peter Paul Rubens and Lucas Cranach the Elder. It is not merely a famous story, but an incident loaded with dramatic tension. Although a mythical tale, it is a form of tension that many of us recognise. We may not be asked to judge the beauty of goddesses, but we all know of moments when we have faced important decisions. Participating in elections is just one example.

But there is one uncertainty in Morley’s painting. Unlike many artists who have depicted this story, he does not focus on Paris considering his decision. In this work, Paris has clearly made his choice. The shepherd-prince on the left looks past the figures of Hera and Athena towards the back of Aphrodite. Paris has chosen love, but has Morely captured the moment he has made his decision? Or was Paris always committed to the path of love? Was he a floating voter or a man of firm allegiance?

The Judgement of Paris can be seen in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s Twentieth Century Gallery. Details of the 5 May elections can be found on the Brighton & Hove City Council website.

Kevin Bacon
Digital Development Officer
Royal Pavilion and Museums

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