Biblical themes have already appeared on this blog few times, so it’s time for the mythology now. Mythological subejcts were usually used by the artists to create more or less erotic depictions. The gods of ancient Greeks and Romans were very much human-like, so they had pretty interesting sexual lives, and they often found themselves in quite complex relations. Of course, the leader in adultery was Zeus (Jupiter), who kept searching for new mistresses, both divine or mortal. Unfortunately, his jealous wife Hera (Juno) always stood on his way; why the wives usually have no sympathy for their husbands’ needs? Well, Hera was jealous, and she was also a goddess of marriage. She was, by the way, also her own husband’s sister, but the issue of incest in ancient myths is not a subject of this post.
So, our poor Zeus had to get really creative to cheat on his wife and get away with it. Being a god, he had some extra skills that could be useful in such cases: for example, he managed to turn into animals. That was quite a disguise! Today I would like to focuse on his affair with Leda, whom he seduced her in the guise of a swan.
Leda was a queen of Sparta, a wife of king Tyndareus. As I said – Zeus came to her as a swan and seduced her. Leda got pregnant, but the tricky part is that she was actually fertilized by the bird; as a result, she laid the egg. Well, actually, two eggs. Two children hatched from each egg: Castor, Pollux, Helen and Clytemnestra. To make the whole situation even more messed up, Leda laid with her husband the same night she made love to Zeus, so in fact the children were of different fathers. As usually in such situation, the fatherhood was uncertain and different versions of the myth tell different stories. It is though commonly assumed that Pollux and Helen (later called “Helen of Troy”) were divine, while Castor and Clytemnestra were mortal.
The depictions of Leda with the Swan were very popular in European art, from Antiquity till Postmodern art. On one hand they are filled with strongly erotic associations (woman with a big bird…), but on the other hand the idea of such sexual relationship between species is so unreal, that the depictions (no matter how straightforward) do not gain pornographic character. We simply can’t figure out how exactly might such an act work… well, Leda was probably also quite surprised, when she laid those eggs.
One of the most famous versions of this subject, unfortunately now lost, was a painting by Michelangelo, created for Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara in 1530. In 1532 the masterpiece became a property of king Francis I of France and was relocated to the palace in Fontainebleau. The last record about the paintings dates back to 1740 and we don’t know what happened later. Nevertheless whe now the composition, as it was repeated many times by other artists. There is a copy attributed to Rosso Fiorentino(in the National Gallery in London, shown above), another by Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1600, below), as well as the engraving by Cornelis Bos (after 1537) or the sculpture by Bartolomeo Ammannati (circa 1536). And those are only few chosen examples.
The version created by Michelangelo was obviously very popular, and it must be stressed that it was actually quite literal in showing the position of both parties. Most of the other Renaissance or Baroque depictions shown Leda rather with the swan then under it. Later centuries brought more direct interpretations… Rococo was a particularly naughty style, so it is not surprising that Leda by François Boucher, painted circa 1740, leaves almost no room for imagination. She just presents all her assets to the Swan who, apparently, is quite interested.
Erotic stories has been a source of inspiration for the artist of all the centuries, and they were also always appreciated by the viewers. The myths of the different cultures keep coming back to the motif of the relationship between a woman and an animal. Sometimes the result of such a romance was a birth of a hero, sometimes a birth of a monster. Leda gave birth to four children, and there was a beautiful Helen among them. Later that Helen became a cause for a long and terrible Trojan War… so maybe it would have been better if Leda stayed faithful to her husband? But then, who could resist such a swan, with such a long neck and a passionate beak?