Hannibal Lecter’s a weird dude. I think, after all this time, everyone’s pretty solid on that fact. But I think one of the first indicators of just how off this guy is—and I mean public indicators obvious to even the characters within the show, not all the cutaway private scenes of him chopping up people in his kitchen—is that every night, Hannibal consumes his lavish meals, or presents them to others, while sitting directly across from a painting of a swan getting ready to have sex with a woman. This painting by François Boucher, to be explicit (and it is explicit):
The painting is “Leda et le Cygne” (ca. 1740), and it’s one of two separate works Boucher painted of this mythical coupling wherein Zeus, overcome by Leda’s beauty, assumed the form of a swan and then had his godly way with her. I was going to tell you some background information for this specific painting, but honestly I think the most important thing to know comes from production designer Matthew Davies, who said of the painting, “It leapt to mind when I first imagined the perverse nature of Lecter. I found that it is in the public domain and its whereabouts unknown, so a little narrative developed: Hannibal secretly owns the painting and stares at it during supper.”
Like I said, Hannibal’s a weird dude.
Leda and the Swan is a story that’s appeared in Western art and literature multiple times since before the common era, in multiple mediums, and with multiple perspectives and interpretations. Artists such as Michaelangelo and da Vinci painted scenes inspired by the myth (originals now lost), and centuries later W.B. Yates wrote a famous poem about the interaction, which was followed up by other poetic versions of what happened between Leda and Zeus. A veritable mess of he said-she said tracking well over 2000 years.
One of the classic versions of the story is really just a fleeting mention in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, wherein Arachne has chastely depicted the coupling of Zeus and Leda on her weaving. In my translation, Leda is said to be “meekly reclining” under Zeus’ wings—a pretty ambivalent take. And artistic and literary renditions that have come after are often in direct conflict with one another. Sometimes the act is depicted with erotic sensuality. Sometimes it is depicted with violence and terror.
There’s a lot of similarities between the myth of Leda and the Swan and one I wrote about earlier in the season: Hades and Persephone. Both tell the story of a god having sex with a young woman. Both have been considered a narrative of sexual assault, and both have been considered a narrative of romantic seduction. It’s this uncomfortable contradiction that I think is echoed in the complicated relationship between Hannibal and Will, a relationship whose proper analysis goes beyond the scope of this particular post.
However, there are other worthwhile connections to make between the narrative in this piece of art and the narrative of the show. I have a friend who’s much smarter than me, and when I consulted her about how to approach this myth, she asked a lot of great questions (especially for someone who’s never seen Hannibal) that had me thinking about Leda and the Swan in other ways. The first thing she asked was if there were any aspects of Hannibal’s and Will’s characters that recalled Zeus or Leda.
Making the connection between Hannibal and Zeus certainly felt apt. Zeus was the arrogant, powerful, and promiscuous god of the sky in Greek mythology. Potentially the most powerful of all the gods, Zeus had a sense of invulnerability that’s paralleled in Hannibal’s almost supernatural ability to predict, influence, and trick those around him without getting caught. And when Hannibal is finally arrested, even that sacrificing act is a power play against Will in Hannibal’s mind.
Will bears some resemblance to Leda as well. Leda was a figure with unforeseen value to Zeus—her beauty—and who was targeted for that value. Will, too, has unforeseen value to Hannibal—his empathy. Which is not to say that anything that happened to Leda or Will was their responsibility but rather that they did not draw the attention of their pursuers randomly. As a result, both Leda and Will are either corrupted or empowered (or some combination of both) depending on how their interactions with their respective partners are perceived.
There’s also the idea of the swan itself. Of all the animals referenced in Hannibal, swans are not the most prevalent. But there is one other mention of these elegant birds in season two—a mention I’ve discussed before in “Cancer and Cannibalism, Typhoid and Swans.” In that post, I quoted the following piece of dialogue:
It’s from a conversation between Hannibal and Will about the natural violence of God, with Hannibal arguing that things as deadly as typhoid fever and as beautiful as swans all stem from the same source. I argued in that piece that Hannibal sees himself in this way too—a mirror of God, the source of all beauty and destruction. It’s a contradiction that I think also appears when Zeus takes the form of a swan and descends on Leda, and of course when Hannibal himself descends on Will and jumpstarts his transformation.
Leda and her swan offer no easy answers about the nature of Will and Hannibal, and I’m not offering any clarity either. But I have to admit, even with the complications, I appreciate that this painting is in the series in the capacity that it is. I appreciate that it reflects the show’s own messy and contradictory character relationships. I really like that it’s a piece of mysterious art that Hannibal stares at while he eats. And I love that it took all the way until season two for the NBC censors to even realize a painted depiction of a woman’s vagina was featured in the show at all (in season two’s premier episode, “Kaiseki,” you can see Leda is now chastely draped with fabric during a dinner scene between Hannibal and Chilton). And I love that including Boucher’s work meant Bryan Fuller had a reason to create the following tweet:
(Also, Bryan, are you sure? She seemed pretty in focus to me for the first 13 episodes.)
- Ovid – Metamorphoses
- Edith Hamilton – Mythology
- “Hannibal TV Show Set Design Photos”