In the Judgement of Paris, the shepherd Paris is approached by Mercury to adjudicate between the goddesses Juno, Minerva and Venus, each of whom claims to be the most beautiful. Paris awards the prize to Venus, but this is more than a beauty contest. It is a choice between three ways of life: the active, the contemplative and the sensual. In early modern Europe, those ways of life represented distinct social roles and environments. The active life was that of warfare and the exercise of power; the contemplative life could be achieved through either religious or secular retirement and study; the sensual life was one of material and sexual gratification, and presupposed the ready availability of the commodities consumed.
Because each of the goddesses was associated with other deities and with a specific mythological location, the Judgement of Paris provides a way to make sense of the distribution of mythological imagery in the Renaissance (see Figure 1, below). Juno is the consort of Jupiter, the ruler of the gods, and they are often to be seen together on Olympus, the seat of the divine court, from where Jupiter punishes gods and mortals alike, assisted by his son, Hercules, the destroyer of monsters. Minerva, as the virgin goddess of wisdom, presides over the Muses on Mount Helicon, routinely conflated with Mount Parnassus where the Muses reside with Apollo, who is the inspiration of their poetry and music.
Venus, the goddess of love, is the wife of Vulcan, the blacksmith who works at a forge generally placed at the mouth of Hades. This is the sole source of manufacturing in the world of mythology, and as Brueghel’s Venus at the Forge of Vulcan reveals, the site of a prodigious output. Yet this is also the site of natural productivity. Venus herself is a fertility goddess, associated with Flora, the goddess of spring, and Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and corn, whose daughter, Proserpina, Pluto dragged down into the underworld. Without Ceres and Bacchus, god of the fertility of the vine, Venus could not prosper, but prosper she does, even though she can never escape the taint of impurity. Hers comes of illicit lust, Vulcan’s from his deformity and demeaning trade, Bacchus’s from drunkenness, Pluto’s from death.
All of these sites have some correlative within early modern society. Secular rulers, notably the Holy Roman Emperors and their local subordinates, embraced the roles of Jupiter and Hercules; in France, the royal court became Olympus, with kings, queens, princes and princesses switching roles. Parnassus was the site of cultural as opposed to coercive power, and popes, poets, musicians (and their patrons) took on Apollonian roles. Craftsmen, by contrast, identified with Vulcan; artists with Bacchus, and prostitutes with Venus. Pluto was the god of riches, and the gods of fertility and production were particularly celebrated in the art of wealthy urban centres—in Venice in the sixteenth century, the Low Countries in the seventeenth.
However, this is clearly not a complete picture of the imaginative world of Renaissance mythology, or even of the spatial possibilities implied by the Judgement of Paris. For obvious reasons, it excludes the sea gods, who inhabit another realm over which Jupiter’s brother Neptune presides. But it also fails to account for the space in which the Judgement itself takes place. In Rubens’s painting, Paris is a shepherd, with his dog at his feet and the flocks in the background; satyrs peer through the trees. This is none of the places represented by Juno, Minerva or Venus. On the contrary, it is neutral with respect to all of them, which is why it functions as the place in which the merits of each can be viewed and evaluated. But where are we?