Great Works: Leda And The Swan (circa 1515) after Leonardo

Wilton House, Salisbury

The High Renaissance once embodied the supreme standard, the paragon of beauty and nobility, the norm of all norms. Now it looks more like a freak show. There's Michelangelo with his muscle-bound super-heroes. There's Leonardo with his spooky-faced aliens. It's strangely fashioned world, and that's why it still appeals to our age, which delights in strangeness.

Classical myth provides it with suitably strange activities. These foundational stories of Western civilisation are as bizarre as any. When Jupiter impregnates some desirable mortal, he takes various shapes for the purpose, sometimes mineral, a cloud, a shower of gold, or sometimes animal, a bull, a swan, an eagle, a pigeon, an ant. Not all of these couplings are that easily pictured. Eurymedusa and the Ant is the subject of very few paintings. There are limits.

Leda and the Swan, on the other hand, is a common subject. And the sexual intercourse of bird and woman is often depicted very frankly. The swan is rather a small partner, but this scene it's as near as the old masters get to showing human-human sex. Avian bestiality was a more acceptable sight than the beast with two backs.

But not 100 per cent acceptable. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo treated the subject, and both of their paintings are lost now, presumed destroyed by prudish owners. They survive only through copies. Michelangelo's version shows intercourse on a couch. Leda has a pose rather similar to his sculpture of Night on the Medici Tombs. She droops half-conscious.

Leonardo, in this copy by Cesare da Sesto, takes the subject in quite another direction. In his Leda and the Swan he finds possibilities stranger than mere sex. His picture imagines the story beyond the one-off act of impregnation. It forgets that this swan is even meant to be Jupiter in temporary disguise. He portrays the connubial bliss of woman and bird.

Here we have the couple living together, swan and wife, next to hubby's home pond – note all the bulrushes rising among the closely observed vegetation. We see them standing side-by-side, a pair enjoying an ongoing love-life, both naked, snuggling, canoodling, and necking.

The swan puts a fond and protecting wing around Leda. Its rim closely hugs the long curve of her hip and thigh, as a human male lover might grasp his woman's shoulder. In Leonardo's time, did they have that old saw about the blow of a swan's wing being powerful enough to break an arm? Was it natural then to see swans as strong as well as graceful?

The swan's neck, meanwhile, is garlanded at it base, and then goes into a writhing undulation like a charmed snake. Her hands embrace and stroke it. Its beak comes up for a peck. We see it on the point of nuzzling her shoulder. There's the most indecent suggestion of masturbation, or perhaps of a prehensile penis. Leda, with her Mona Lisa smirk, looks away coyly, demurely.

There's a touch of realism. Most Leda paintings, even when in flagrante delicto, show only the swan's neck and wings. They stress, that it, the graceful, feathery, visible-above-water aspect of the bird. But Leonardo gives the awkward physical facts. His double standing portrait includes the swan's bottom half, its gross legs with their paddle feet, standing squarely and squatly, and standing on some mound, to make up for the way the creature is so much shorter than its spouse. And then there's the strangest aspect of this relationship: its offspring. Intercourse between swan and woman can be just about envisaged. Humans and birds both breed that way. But humans do not give birth by laying eggs. They do not arrive in the world by breaking out of a shell, already well formed and active.

That seems to be the moment in the story that Leonardo illustrates: the hatching. The sitting, the nesting, the really odd aspects of life, if humans were oviparous, he leaves to our imagination. But he shows enough of the thing, and it's like something out of Hieronymus Bosch.

Not one egg but two, and in each egg twins, four babies tumbling out of their broken containers and wriggling into life. (The legend involves even weirder biology: two of these quads were Jupiter's, two were engendered by a human king.)

But what you would never get in Bosch is Leda's body itself. It stands as the picture's central upright. Its firm but gentle curvature is there to calm down – or to show up – the bizarreries on either side of it. Here at least is normality. She seems to be about to step out of the scene.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own