Leda and the Swan
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Leda and the Swan is a motif from Greek mythology, in which Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan and seduced her. During the Renaissance the motif was especially popular. Sadly the versions by Correggio, Leonardo and Michelangelo were either damaged by moral crusaders or destroyed by moralistic widows or successors of the French Royal family.
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. In other versions, Helen is a daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris.
Representation during antiquity
The motif was rarely seen in the large-scale sculpture of antiquity, although Timotheos is known to have represented Leda in sculpture; small-scale examples survive showing both reclining and standing poses, 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. Many artists have their own representative paintings of 'Leda and the Swan'; with the support of Greek mythology.
Eroticism in 16th century visual art
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. The fate of the album I Modi some years later shows why this was the case. 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.
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. An engraving dating to 1503 at the latest, by Giovanni Battista Palumba, also shows the couple in coitus, but in deserted countryside. 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. 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.
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.
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.
There were many other depictions in the Renaissance, including cycles of book illustrations to Ovid, but most were derivative of the compositions mentioned above. The subject remained largely confined to Italy, and sometimes France – Northern versions are rare. After something of a hiatus in the 18th and early 19th centuries (apart from a very sensuous Boucher, 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 abstract version of Leda and the Swan in 1962. It is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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 Jeopardize the Integrity of the Hull" series. Zeus, as the swan, only appears metaphorically.