This print, by the Austrian-German artist Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner (c. 1702-1761), was inspired by the ancient myth of Momus, who judged an art contest held among the Greek gods. In particular, the art contestants were said to have been Hephaestus, Poseidon and Athena. Each godly artist chose a different subject to depict in their artworks. Hephaestus decided to take the human anatomical route, while Poseidon chose to re-create a selection from animal wildlife, and Athena, contrastingly, went with a completely different tactic and showcased architecture. One would think that Hephaestus, as a god of craftsmanship who was practiced in making humanoid figures, would be the contestant with the clear advantage in the art contest. Yet, Momus was a judge of deep thought, going beyond shallow scanning of aesthetics in his decision-making process. The myth of Momus was summarized by the ancient satirist, Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180+), who wrote:
“I expect you’ve heard about the faults Momus found in Hephaestus, but if not I’ll tell you. The story is that Athena, Poseidon, and Hephaestus were quarreling about which was the best artist. Poseidon fashioned a bull, Athena designed a house, and Hephaestus apparently constructed a man. They had appointed Momus as judge, and when they came to him he examined the handiwork of each. His criticisms of the others do not concern us, but the fault he found in the man and his censure of the craftsman Hephaestus, was that he had not made windows in his chest, which could be opened to show everyone his desires and thoughts, and whether he is lying or telling the truth” (Lucian, Hermotimus or On Philosophical Schools, section 20).
It is this tale that inspired Johann Wolfgang Baumgartner’s artwork. Athena’s house can be seen in the background, and Poseidon’s bull serves as Momus’ mount. Hephaestus’ art installation dominates the left side of the print, and Momus, wielding a magnifying glass, can be seen inspecting the humanoid figure that the craftsman god created. As told in Lucian’s quote, there is no window to the figure’s inner thoughts and intentions. Instead, there is what looks like a mirror, deflecting any attempt to look at what lays beyond the surface.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Lucian, Selected Dialogues, translated by C. D. N. Costa. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World Classics), 2005, 2006, 2009.