Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan is a motif from Greek mythology, in which Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan. According to later Greek mythology, Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra, children of her husband Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. As the story goes, Zeus took the form of a swan and raped or seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband, King Tyndareus. In some versions, she laid two eggs from which the children hatched. [This idea, that the semen of more than one male might influence pregnancy, a feature in the origin myth of Theseus, is called telegony; it retained scientific followers until the late nineteenth century.] In other versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris.

The motif was rarely seen in the large-scale sculpture of antiquity, although Timotheos is known to have represented Leda in sculpture ("compare illustration, below left"); small-scale examples survive showing both reclining and standing poses,Malcolm Bull, "The Mirror of the Gods, How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods", Oxford UP, 2005, ISBN 100195219236] [Bull p. 167. See External links for examples] in cameos and engraved gems, rings, and terracotta oil lamps. Thanks to the literary renditions of Ovid and Fulgentius it was a well-known myth through the Middle Ages, but emerged more prominently as a classicizing theme, with erotic overtones, in the Italian Renaissance.


The subject undoubtedly owed its sixteenth-century popularity to the paradox that it was considered more acceptable to depict a woman in the act of copulation with a swan than with a man. The earliest depictions show the pair love-making with some explicitness—more so than in any depictions of a human pair made by artists of high quality in the same period. [Bull p 167] The fate of the album I Modi some years later shows why this was. The theme remained a dangerous one in the Renaissance, as the fates of the three best known paintings on the subject demonstrate. The earliest depictions were all in the more private medium of the old master print, and mostly from Venice. They were often based on the extremely brief account in the "Metamorphoses" of Ovid (who does not imply a rape), though Lorenzo de' Medici had both a Roman sarcophagus and an antique carved gem of the subject, both with reclining Ledas. [Bull p167]

The earliest known explicit Renaissance depiction is one of the many woodcut illustrations to "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili", a book published in Venice in 1499. This shows Leda and the Swan making love with gusto, despite being on top of a triumphal car, being pulled along and surrounded by a considerable crowd. [ [http://mitpress.mit.edu/e-books/HP/hyp166.htm Page 166 - Hypnerotomachia Poliphili ] ] An engraving dating to 1503 at the latest, by Giovanni Battista Palumba, also shows the couple in coitus, but in deserted countryside. [Misattributed to Hans Baldung, near the bottom [http://www.all-art.org/er_in_art/06-1.html here] ] Another engraving, certainly from Venice and attributed by many to Giulio Campagnola, shows a love-making scene, but there Leda's attitude is highly ambiguous. [ [http://www.bodkinprints.co.uk/product.php?id=38 Bodkin Prints - Product details ] ] [Not a woodcut, as Bull (p169) wrongly says (see Hind BM catalogue,The Illustrated Bartsch etc); nor is his view of Leda's expression the only one.] Palumba made another engraving in about 1512, presumably influenced by Leonardo's sketches for his earlier composition, showing Leda seated on the ground and playing with her children. [ [http://www.metmuseum.org/special/Poets_Lovers_Heroes/lovers_05_51.623.3.R.asp The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Special Exhibitions: Poets, Lovers, and Heroes in Italian Mythological Prints ] ]

There were also significant depictions in the smaller decorative arts, also private media. Benvenuto Cellini made a medallion, now in Vienna, early in his career, and Antonio Abondio one on the obverse of a medal celebrating a Roman courtesan. [ [http://www.nga.gov.au/international/Catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=66251&Orient=Verso Abondio, NGA Washington] ]

In painting

Leonardo da Vinci began making studies in 1504 for a painting, apparently never executed, of Leda seated on the ground with her children. In 1508 he painted a different composition of the subject, with a nude standing Leda cuddling the Swan, with the two sets of infant twins, and their huge broken egg-shells. The original of this is lost, probably deliberately destroyed, but it is known from many copies.

Also lost, and probably deliberately destroyed, is Michelangelo's tempera painting of the pair making love, commissioned in 1529 by Alfonso d'Este for his palazzo in Ferrara. Michelangelo's cartoon for the work— given to his assistant Antonio Mini, who used it for several copies for French patrons before his death in 1533— survived for over a century. This composition is known from many copies, including an engraving by Cornelis de Bos, "c." 1563; the marble sculpture by Bartolomeo Ammanati in the Bargello, Florence; two copies by the young Rubens on his Italian voyage, and the painting after Michelangelo, ca. 1530, in the National Gallery, London. [Elfriede R. Knauer, "Leda" "Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen" 11 (1969:5-35) illustrates several copies as well as an engraving of a Roman bas-relief and examples of antique engraved gems that seem to have provided Micelangelo's inspiration and gives a full bibliography of Michelangelo's "Leda".] The Michelangelo composition, of about 1530, shows Mannerist tendencies of elongation and twisted pose (the "figura serpentinata") that were popular at the time. In addition, a sculptural group, similar to the Prado Roman group illustrated, was believed until at least the 19th century to be by Michelangelo. [It belonged to John Everett Millais and was included in his 2007 Tate Britain exhibition. Now London, attributed to a 16th-century "follower of Michelangelo".]

The last very famous Renaissance painting of the subject is Correggio's elaborate composition of "c." 1530 (Berlin); this too was damaged whilst in the collection of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the Regent of France in the minority of Louis XV. His son Louis though a great lover of painting, had periodic crises of conscience about his way of life, in one of which he attacked the figure of Leda with a knife. The damage has been repaired, though full restoration to the original condition was not possible. Both the Leonardo and Michelangelo paintings also disappeared when in the collection of the French Royal Family, and are believed to have been destroyed by more moralistic widows or successors of their owners. [Bull p169]

There were many other depictions in the Renaissance, including cycles of book illustations to Ovid, but most were derivative of the compositions mentioned above. [ [http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/zino/ho_1982.60.11.htm Bacchiacca (Francesco d'Ubertino): Leda and the Swan | Work of Art | Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art ] ] The subject remained largely confined to Italy, and sometimes France – Northern versions are rare. [ Bull p.170] After something of a hiatus in the 18th and early 19th centuries (apart from a very sensuous Boucher, [ [http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/anc_bou_leda.html Leda and the Swan ] ] Leda and the Swan became again a popular motif in the later 19th and 20th centuries, with many Symbolist and Expressionist treatments.

In Modern Art

Cy Twombly executed an intense version of Leda and the Swan in 1962. It is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. [ [http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=80083 MoMA.org | The Collection | Cy Twombly. Leda and the Swan. Rome 1962 ] ]

Avant-garde filmmaker Kurt Kren along with other members of the Vienna Actionist movement including Otto Muehl and Hermann Nitsch made a film-performance version of Leda and the Swan called "7/64 Leda mit der Schwan" in 1964. The film retains the classical motif, portraying, for most of its duration, a young woman embracing a swan.

Photographer Charlie White included a portrait of Leda in his "And Jeapordize the Integrity of the Hull" series. Zeus, as the swan, only appears metaphorically.

There is a (rather explicit) life size marble statue of Leda and the Swan at the Jai Vilas Palace Museum in Gwalior, Northern Madhya Pradesh, India.

In poetry

Ronsard wrote a poem on "La Défloration de Lède", perhaps inspired by the Michelangelo, which he may well have known. Like many artists, he imagines the beak penetrating Leda's mouth. [ Bull p.169]

"Leda and the Swan" is a poem by William Butler Yeats first published in 1928 (below). Combining psychological realism with a mystic vision, it describes the swan's rape of Leda.

:A sudden blow: the great wings beating still:Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed:By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,:He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

:How can those terrified vague fingers push:The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?:And how can body, laid in that white rush,:But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

:A shudder in the loins engenders there:The broken wall, the burning roof and tower ["Was this the face that launched a thousand ships/ And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" (Christopher Marlowe, "Doctor Faustus"). Both Helen and Clytemnestra were Leda's daughters.] :And Agamemnon dead.::::::Being so caught up,:So mastered by the brute blood of the air,:Did she put on his knowledge with his power:Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?



Vespertine:_things_flourishing_in_the_evening|thumb|left|The_Icelandic_singer_Bjork illustrates the legend with the cover of her 4th studio album Vespertine (designed by M/M Paris).]

External links

thumb|200px|Leda and the Swan, 1920, 83x50 mm. Etching by the Czech artist T.F. Šimon (1877-1942).
* [http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/latin/ovid/notes.html Ovid Illustrated - large site from the University of Virginia, where many depictions of Leda and the Swan from Renaissance and later editions of the Metamorphoses will (eventually) be found.]
* [http://d-sites.net/english/yeats.htm Yeats' "Leda and the Swan": an image's coming of age]
* [http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=14945&handle=li Greek vase from the Getty]
* [http://www.samuelson.co.uk/blog/?p=407 Samuelson blog with thoughts and pictures]
* [http://www.museiciviciveneziani.it/frame.asp?id=2341&musid=112 16th century Venetian painting by Il Padovanino]
* [http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K1.11.html Alternative detail view of the Getty vase]
* [http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=7639 Roman statue from the Getty]
* [http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=113647 Baroque bronze from the Getty]
* [http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ladylever/collections/ledaandtheswan.asp Sculpture c 1900]
* [http://www.zeinalov.com/htm/e/erotic/leda_01.htm Leda and the swan – Bronze miniature]
* [http://www.historia-del-arte-erotico.com/jupiter_leda/ Jupiter+Leda+art]
* cite web |publisher= Victoria and Albert Museum
url= http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/sculpture/stories/leda/index.html
title= Leda and the Hat Pin
accessdate= 2007-07-24

* [http://xahlee.org/Periodic_dosage_dir/lacru/leda.html Visual Arts Appreciation Pages]
* [http://www.shunya.net/Pictures/NorthIndia/Gwalior/LedaSwan.jpgJai Vilas Palace Museum, Gwalior, India]

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