The Judgment of Paris is a story from Greek mythology, which made its presence in the classical Greek literature like the Iliad and the Cypria. It was also retold by later writers Ovid, Lucian and others. It is evident that the Judgment of Paris is one of the events that led up to the Trojan War and ultimately to the foundation of Rome.
The story begins at the wedding ceremony of Peleus, a noted hero of Ancient Greece and Thetis, a sea-nymph, to which all of the gods were invited, except Eris, the goddess of discord, for it was believed she would have made the party unpleasant for everyone. Eris felt insulted at it, became enraged and despite being uninvited, turned up at the celebrations with a golden apple as a wedding gift. Eris collected the apple from the Garden of the Hesperides and was inscribed with the words, for the most beautiful. As she made her presence at the celebrations, instead of presenting the golden apple to the bride, the goddess threw it amongst the assembled gods and goddesses.
Since it was meant for the most beautiful, it became the apple of discord, as the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite all laid claim to it. Finally, they asked Zeus to mediate and select the fairest. However, that was a big problem for Zeus. In fact, he was not in a comfortable position to select one among the three and earn the wrath of the other two, as one the contestants was his wife, another one was his sister and the third was his daughter. So he asked the messenger god Hermes to guide the three to the Mount Ida, where the shepherd-prince Paris would solve the issue.
Paris was a son of King Priamus of Troy and was abandoned at his birth on the Mount Ida, as her mother dreamed that the child wold ultimately bring the destruction of Troy. Paris was raised by a bear and became a shepherd.
He was amazed to see three beautiful goddesses approach him, bathed in the spring of Ida and figure-hugging wet-look draperies and even more amazed when they asked him to single out the best beauty among them.
As Paris failed to judge their beauty with their clothing on, the three goddesses readily stripped nude, without any hesitation, to convince Paris of their worthiness. While Paris was intently trying to evaluate, each of the beauties attempted to influence her by bribing with their gifts.
While Hera promised him power over all Asia, Athena promised him wisdom and victory in all the battles, Aphrodite promised to give him the most beautiful woman on earth. This most beautiful woman was Helen of Sparta, wife of the Greek king Menelaus. As Aphrodite assured Paris of a lustful love and also promised that Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world would find him irresistible, Paris handed the apple to Aphrodite.
The judgment made by Paris ensured the eternal enmity of both Hera and Athena and during the Trojan War which followed the abduction of Helen by Paris, both the goddesses aided the besieging Greeks at Troy.
From the late middle Ages onwards, the subject of the mythical story of the Judgment of Paris became very much popular in art, especially in painting. Obviously, the opportunity of presenting three female nudes in the canvas was a large part of the attraction of the subject. In most of the works, all the three young goddesses were painted in nude, though in ancient art only Aphrodite is ever unclothed. It was painted repeatedly by masters like Lucas Cranach the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. In fact, it was painted frequently by academic artists of the 19th century, and less often by their more progressive contemporaries such as Renoir and Cezanne.