Ceramics and Swantaurs

A favourite preoccupation of mine during the pandemic has been looking for images of Swantaurs, the weird in-between state where a man is transforming into a swan. The most well known man-to-swan isn’t really a man at all, but rather, Zeus/Jupiter transforming into a swan to rape Leda. The topic is fraught and sensitive for obvious reasons, which makes the hilarity of the swantaur images an occasionally difficult topic for discussion. And they are hilarious! So please excuse my flippancy at focusing on the artistic interpretations rather than the serious aspects of the topic.

For your amusement, I have uploaded my presentation about the appearance of Swantaurs on Renaissance Maiolica. The lovely Classics postgrads at the University of Otago hosted the Amphorae 2021 conference, and they gave me an opportunity to talk about something silly and fun. And yes, I managed to cut my “Hello, I’m Lauren” from the start of the video because I am oh-so-very impatient when it comes to video editing. I’ve also chopped the insightful and fun questions and discussion from the end of the video because my fellow conference-goers did not consent to be shared online (and I didn’t ask them because… impatience).

Since giving this presentation I have stumbled upon another plate painted by Francesco Xanto Avelli which shows a man tranforming into a swan, likely a mute swan. It’s an interesting image that depicts Orpheus arriving at the boat of Charon. Xanto identifies the image as being from book 10 of the Metamorphoses but the identify of the swantaur is currently unknown. The depiction of Cerberus is similarly unique and I have not found any analogous depictions in either ancient or early modern art.

Maiolica Bowl
The descent of Orpheus into Hades
Francesco Xanto Avelli da Rovigo, 1532
Diameter:26.5 cm
© The Wallace Collection

The Hermitage Museum holds another piece by Xanto that was painted in the same year and also depicts Cerberus, but that shows a dog with three heads, not a man with three dog heads (see here). So, there are at least two mysteries about this illustration. If you know who the swantaur is and/or why Cerberus has a human body, please let me know. You can comment here (I think) or chase me on twitter at @ouroboros81

Be on the lookout for more swantaurs!

– Lauren Murphy