5. Raphael, The Judgment of Paris

Object type: Copperplate engraving, Raphael, The Judgment of Paris

Materials: Ink on paper

Image by curator, used with permission of the Lewis Walpole Library

Location in MIAC: DESIGN

If you muck around in archives long enough, you're bound to run into a print engraving of Raphael's The Judgment of Paris.  There must have been thousands churned out at the studio of Marcantonio, Raphael's favorite engraver.  And there are plenty of paintings by other artists treating the same subject.  I have personally only seen a small handful, mostly in the museums of Europe, but Hubert Damisch's brilliant study of the topic catalogues far more, naming several examples by Rubens, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Claude Lorrain-- to name just a few that might have been around in the eighteenth century.  

If you were to plan a trip to see Raphael's original, however... that is, if you were to try to find the painting upon which the engravings were presumably based, you'll be out of luck.  It isn't that some obscure original was lost-- at least, not if you ask anyone from the eighteenth century.  Rather, Raphael's engraving, or perhaps we should say Marcantonio's, was a copy from no original, an engraving made directly from the mind of the Old Master himself.  At least, this was the common opinion held by connoisseurs in the eighteenth century (though I have had a number of conversations recently that suggest that the truth might not be so clear-- that there might indeed have been an original from which Marcantonio was working).

We can be led astray by essays like that of Walter Benjamin, whose remarks on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction assume that things like engravings refer to an absent original, that they introduce distance from some auratic object fresh from the maker's hand.  As thinkers like John Evelyn make clear (in his Sculptura), engravings weren't understood to be imperfect substitutes for seeing the real thing; they are the closest thing to minds communicating directly.  Artistic creation, by this account, is the arrangement of objects.  This is what is meant by "design," at least in the eighteenth century; the artist sets out to paint a painting by first deciding on an arrangement of figures, and sketching them on the canvas or boards.  Looked at this way, an engraving is what would be left of the idea of the craftsman if all the tricks of color and light were stripped away.  Obviously there is little room here for what we would understand as craft, for the painter discovering his subject as he paints.  The application of color is merely a superadded means of providing pleasure; the real work of painting, and the genius of the painter, is in the prior arrangement-- exactly what is captured in an engraving.

And it is true: The Judgment of Paris quite clearly, as Damrosch establishes, borrows heavily from classical sculpture and bas relief for its figures; Raphael has, it seems, arranged bits and pieces of classical art into a well-known story-- an act of judgment which produces a picture itself about judgment.  The story is this: Paris, herding sheep on the slopes of Mount Ida, is approached by three goddesses to settle an Olympian dispute.  Each differently asks Paris to select her as the “fairest” of the three; Athena offers him wisdom, and Juno wealth and power, but Paris is ultimately swayed by Aphrodite’s offer of the woman in the world most celebrated for her beauty.  Paris is of course swayed by the Goddess of Love; how could he not be?  And he therefore gives her, for her prize, the Apple of Discord which was the cause of the whole disagreement in the first place.  This is precisely the moment that Raphael has captured; his engraving hits <pause> just after Paris has made his choice, but before he learns what it portends.  For Aphrodite's gift turns out to be mixed.  Paris receives Helen, but Helen is already married.  Her eventual elopement, orchestrated by Aphrodite on Paris’s behalf, activates a complex network of military and political promises.  The judgment of Paris is, in the end, the meteor of the Trojan war, plunging the circum-Mediterranean world into ruinous conflict.  It also kicks off the events culminating in the anger of Achilles, Odysseus’s fraught return to Ithaca, and the flight of Aeneas to Rome: the major subjects of epic literature.  It is therefore an almost trivial moment, at the crossroads of vision and desire—seeing and acting—which nevertheless brings into focus and order the particulars of epic history.

More than one commentator has suggested that the judgment of Paris has been repeatedly chosen as a topic because it stages fully-clothed men alongside three female nudes; it puts the viewer in the same voyeuristic position as Paris (see Helmut Nickel's reading, among others).  But it has seemed to many, at least historically, that Raphael selected the subject because of the lesson it tells, the story it stages about the intellectual and the carnal eye.  It stages a parable, in other words, of artistic production, of the importance of seeing through the tricks of the flesh to the moral order that arranges things.  This is how Paris went wrong-- or so the story goes-- and it is also a guide for viewers of art, who are encouraged to look with their intellectual eye. If you look at the Judgment of Paris, and see three nudes, in other words, you are looking at the reproduction, rather than the idea it carries.

Finally, we generally think of the Renaissance, and painters like Raphael, as masters of perspective, which has been variously linked to things like the rise of the modern subject, modern individualism, and so on.  But analysis of images like Raphael's tells a more complicated story, of mixed perspectives, or of an effort to capture a full point-of-view in an arrangement.  Belletrist and virtuoso John Evelyn for instance seems to have agreed that Raphael put Paris in profile in order to offer his single eye as the point of the "pyramis" of his perspective (in his translation of a prior text).  This helped him account for a number of odd features of the engraving, including the evident arrangement of all the gods and goddesses towards Paris, and the fact that figures in the background don't seem to obey the basic laws of foreshortening-- of which Raphael had of course perfect command when he chose.  I don't know if this reading of The Judgment of Paris is true.  But I suspect that if we are able to appreciate it, then we will go a long way towards understanding what is particular about eighteenth-century cognitive models, which after all insisted that artistic creation is mostly about the collection and judicious arrangement of objects. 

Notes: Earliest mentioned in the Iliad (24.25-30), the fable of Paris provides one supernatural version of the causes of the Trojan War.  The judgment of Paris is a common-enough theme in painting and literature that it forms the subject of studies by Hubert Damisch and Sigmund Freud.  See Hubert Damisch, The Judgment of Paris; Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” Standard Edition (1913), 12.299.  Raphael's Judgment of Paris is important in numerous contemporary art treatises, including Roland Freart's Idée de la perfection de la peinture (1662).  The modern consensus remains that Marcantonio executed the copperplate from drawings produced for a fresco intended for the Vatican.