Goddess of the Week: Eris (discord)

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The Golden Apple of Discord (1633), oil on canvas, 181 × 288 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The last of the children of Nyx, primordial goddess of night, who has any significant presence in art since the Renaissance is Eris, associated with either strife or discord, and known to the Romans as Discordia. Eris is best known for setting up the Judgement of Paris, thus leading the Greeks to war with the Trojans, but this isn’t her sole role in paintings.

Some older sources draw distinction between Eris as strife, and her personification of discord. This isn’t clear from her appearance in paintings, though.

One notable appearance is in Peter Paul Rubens’ The Triumph of Victory (c 1614), made when he was young, and the finest painter in Flanders. The Treaty of Antwerp had been signed in 1609, and the city was flourishing in the Twelve Years’ Truce which ensued.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Triumph of Victory (c 1614), oil on oak panel, 161 x 236 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

This work was commissioned by the Antwerp Guild of St George, its organisation of archers, so the figure of Mars dominates. His bloody sword rests on the thigh of Victoria, personification of victory. She reaches over to place a wreath (of either oak or laurel) on Mars, and holds a staff in her left hand. At the right, Mars is being passed the bundle of crossbow bolts that make up the attribute of Concord. Under the feet of Mars are the bodies of Rebellion, in the foreground, who still holds his torch, and Discord, on whose cheek a snake is crawling. The bound figure resting against the left knee of Mars is Barbarism.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Time Defending Truth against the Attacks of Envy and Discord (1641), oil on canvas, diam 297 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Poussin’s later tondo Time Defending Truth against the Attacks of Envy and Discord (1641) puts Father Time at its centre, with a firm grip around Truth’s waist, while Envy and Discord sit below them, the latter with snakes in her hair resembling Medusa.

Most other appearances of Eris are in her role as the initiator of the Judgement of Paris. Myths tell that she was omitted from the guest list for the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, which was celebrated by all the other deities.

The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides exhibited 1806 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides (1806), oil on canvas, 155.3 x 218.4 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2017), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-the-goddess-of-discord-choosing-the-apple-of-contention-in-the-garden-of-the-n00477

Eris decided to take a special present to the wedding feast: a golden apple which she chose from the Garden of the Hesperides. JMW Turner’s The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides from 1806 shows Eris as an older woman dressed in a red skirt, in the centre foreground. She is choosing between two golden apples which have just been picked from the surrounding garden by her sisters the Hesperides.

Eris then gatecrashed the wedding celebration, and as she passed through lobbed her golden apple between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, making it the reward for a beauty contest between them.

Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (date not known), oil on copper, 36.5 x 42 cm, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Joachim Wtewael’s undated painting of The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis is great fun with its aerial band, and numerous glimpses of deities behaving badly. Eris is here about to throw her apple of discord into their midst: she is in mid-air to the left of centre, the apple held out in her right hand.

The clearest and finest depiction of the role of Eris was made by Jacob Jordaens in 1633, after a brilliant oil sketch by Rubens.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The Golden Apple of Discord (1633), oil on canvas, 181 × 288 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In The Golden Apple of Discord, the facially discordant Eris, seen in midair behind the deities, has just made her gift of the golden apple, which is at the centre of the grasping hands, above the table. At the left, Minerva (Pallas Athene) reaches forward for it. In front of her, Aphrodite, her son Eros at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple. On the other side of the table, Hera reaches her hand out for it too.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Feast of Peleus (1872-81), oil on canvas, 36.9 x 109.9 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The most modern version, painted by Edward Burne-Jones as The Feast of Peleus in 1872-81, sticks most closely to the story. In a composition based on classical representations of the Last Supper, he brings Eris in at the far right, her golden apple still concealed. Every head has turned towards her, apart from that of the centaur behind her right wing.

Zeus wisely declined the invitation to judge which of the three was the fairest, eventually passing that onerous task to Paris, prince of Troy, and a mortal, who had a recent track record of making good judgements. Being goddesses, the three couldn’t play fair, and each tried to bribe Paris to award them the golden apple.

Paris held his judgement on Mount Ida, where the three goddesses were accompanied by Hermes (Mercury) as their guide. Paris first inspected them clothed; as he was unable to make a decision, the three of them removed their clothing and offered Paris their bribes. Hera offered to make him king of both Europe and Asia, and Athena plied him with wisdom and skill at war. But it was Aphrodite’s inducement to which Paris succumbed: she offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, then the wife of the Greek king Menelaus.

The consequence of Paris’s (ill) judgement was that he abducted Helen and took her to Troy, which was the immediate cause of the Greek war against Troy.

After conversion to Christianity, Eris has lived on as a personification, referred to as Dame Discord in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Michael Finds Discord Presiding Over an Election in the Monastery (Canto 27:37) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Doré’s engraving for canto 27 of an illustrated edition of this epic shows the Archangel Michael discovering Dame Discord at work in an election in a monastery. She is then used as a weapon against the Saracens, who fall into disarray and are eventually routed from besieging Paris.

I have a feeling that Eris is, to this day, never too far away.