Judgment of Paris


The Judgment of Paris, an important myth in the ancient Greek world, illustrates the superiority of love over the other forces that are wisdom and power.

According to this immemorial myth, the goddess of dissension created a competition between three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, quarreling over a golden apple signed “to the fairest”. The mortal Paris is chosen to put an end to this argument, and the scene of the Judgment of Paris has always been depicted at the fateful moment when the apple is given to Aphrodite, goddess of Love and Beauty. She convinced Paris, promising him the love of the fairest woman in the Greek world: Helen, the King of Sparta’s wife. The attraction force of desire has thus provoked the dreadful Trojan War.

Conveying a universal message, this episode particularly fascinated in the times of the Medici, for the essential place given to Eros. Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raffaello, sets the model of the representation through a famous engraving that will be the first to circulate all over Europe. Based on this engraving, and since 16th century, a very large amount of plates, firebacks, medals and other paintings have been realized.


Sphinx


The iconography of the sphinx arose in several Ancient cultures, most famously in Ancient Egypt and in Greek mythology.
The first sphinxes appeared in Egypt during the 3rd millennium BC. A typical Egyptian sphinx is in a reclined position and has a human head and lion's body. It is a symbol of the union between the Sun god Ra (by the lion) and the pharaoh (by the head). Moreover, sphinxes are often represented with a pharaoh's attributes, such as the striped head-cloth, the Nemes. Egyptians see the sphinx as a representation of divine power. It is also a protective animal, a guardian. This is why sphinxes are often situated at the entrance to a royal residence or a tomb, like the gigantic Sphinx of Giza.

The Greek sphinx evolved in a different way, leading to a winged female with a lioness' body and a woman's bust. In Greece, she took on negative connotations and became a destructive monster associated with death. The legend of Oedipus, who must solve the sphinx's riddle to free the city of Thebes that this creature is terrorizing, became one of the most represented scenes featuring the Greek sphinx in Ancient iconography as well as modern.

The sphinx became a part of modern Western iconography as well, be it as a decorative monument in 18th-century gardens or as a theme for 19th -century painters such as Ingres and Gustave Moreau.

Grotesques

« The grotesque is a kind of free and humorous picture produced by the ancients for the decoration of vacant spaces in some position where only things placed high up are suitable. For this purpose, they fashioned monsters deformed by a freak of nature or by the whim and fancy of the workers, who in these grotesque pictures make things outside of any rule, attaching to the finest thread a weight that it cannot support, to a horse legs of leaves, to a man the legs of a crane, and similar follies and nonsense without end. He whose imagination ran the most oddly, was held to be the most able".
Giorgio Vasari, "About painting", circa 1550

In the late 15th century, Italians named "grotesques" the paintings which were covering vaults and walls of underground antic ruins that gave the impression of caves ("grotte" in Italian). From their rediscovery, and especially the finding of the Domus Aurea, the grotesques - copied or reinvented - enjoyed a large success which would only decline at the beginning of the 19th century. First used in mural ornamentation with Raphael, Michelangelo or Domenico Ghirlandaio, this decor was slowly disseminated into Europe by etchings and engravings, and his motifs were reported into gold or silver works, ceramics, or even furniture. After it was adapted to French Classicism, Jean Berain gave the grotesques a second wind.

Unicorns

The unicorn is known to have the power to heal sickness. Many medieval remedies were based on the powder from its horn.
It was commonly thought that only a young girl could approach a unicorn, and in order to capture it and acquire its precious horn, one had to use a virgin as bate.
These coveted collectible objects could be found in the cabinets of curiosities owned by monarchs. At the turn of the eighteenth century, the truth was revealed: they were actually narwhal horns.

In the Bible or religious iconography, the unicorn's horn has divine power and also symbolizes Christ the Redeemer. This naturally makes it a perfect iconography for heraldry. During the seventeenth century, it became one of the most commonly used emblems for coats of arms, like those of Great-Britain.

During the nineteenth century, enthusiasm for the Middle Ages revived the unicorn's iconography, especially with symbolists such as Gustave Moreau. Today, once again, the unicorn inspires contemporary artists, for example in the artwork The Broken Dream by English artist Damien Hirst.