The Parables of Leda and the Swan

“By definition, trauma cannot be represented, but it can be approached, moved, and transformed. This is not cure. It is making.” -Griselda Pollock, art historian.

Over the weekend, I attended an Academic Summit to present research I had been working on throughout the semester. Students from nine universities across the state of Louisiana were in attendance presenting their own research projects as well. One presentation that had a particularly profound effect on me was from an art student, a one Sarah Prescott, whose project was an allegory between the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan and human trauma. Her topic was just so in touch with the purpose of my blog, that being human experience and the commonality we all share. It’s amazing to see how a myth thousands of years old holds a prevalent perspective to humanity today.

Leda and the Swan
Leda and the Swan, Peter Paul Rubens (1601)

As a little background to the story, the mighty god Zeus descends from Mt. Olympus and, disguised in the form of a swan, seduces and rapes the mortal woman Leda. As Sarah so eloquently stated in her presentation, “Power disguised in beauty steps down to use the body of a supposedly lesser being for pleasure.” All too often it is the most beautiful things that cause the most severe trauma. The pangs of an overwhelming love, the beauty of a severe lightening strike, the majesty of a behemoth beast. And of course no matter the variables or circumstances of rape, it is one of the single most traumatic events a to which a person can be subjected. It is important to note that Sarah’s works are not intended to reflect the actual traumatic event itself, but rather highlight the lingering effects than can last for years after.

The story of Leda and the Swan has been portrayed in countless works of art by the likes of da Vinci, Yeats, Michelangelo, and Rubens. What is really most fascinating about Sarah’s project was her manipulation of the above image to relate the work of art to human trauma and memory. First, Sarah mirrored the image which resulted in a creation that resembles the ink blots used in the Rorschach test, often used in therapy sessions to dissect complex traumatic experiences. As Sarah said, “Each ink blot will become another reminder of the experience that haunts the body.”


From the mirrored image, Sarah next removed the color, leaving behind a saturated stain of the former image; a stain of the trauma and pain which leaves is impression on the very soul of a person. In creating these variations of Rubens’s painting, Sarah hopes to bring light to the truth of trauma and to overcome the oppressive forces which seek to keep the pain hidden behind closed doors. All too often victims of rape are ostracized, shun from society, and blamed for the unforgiving act of violence. They are alone with lingering mental and physical scares, void of color, void of life.

“A record of what is left of the trauma.” -Sarah Prescott

Sarah next created a series of original works to expound on the physicality of trauma. Described by the artist as ,“Neither purely representative nor purely objective, but dancing between completely ephemeral memory and the tangibility of the body.” For this series, the art was created using a transparent canvas, allowing the viewer to see through while the art itself actually participates with the gallery’s environment. It was important, however, that the frame and its confinement of the canvas be prevalent in order to ground the trauma and prevent the viewer from losing himself in it. The clever metaphor here is that while trauma can consume one’s being, it is absolutely necessary to avoid falling into it, letting it control every aspect of one’s life.

The physical boundary of the frame allows “a safe space for violence to exist with the viewer.” -Sarah Prescott

The canvasBarriers2es were not hung against the wall, but instead suspended from the ceiling, jutting out throughout the gallery’s halls. This was done to broadcast the effect trauma has in interrupting one’s life. The viewer must purposely walk around the art, which has become an obstacle in itself. Finally, the spatial relationship of the paintings creates a series of shadows and reflections that cast onto one another. Sarah explained how “The shadows become another painting medium. From this perspective one is not sure if this is stain or shadow. Real or imagined.” All too often victims of trauma, like rape, begin to question to very reality of their situation. Reflections can lead to second guessing and even blaming oneself for the incident.

“There is power in the voluntary capacity with which one can or cannot view.” -Sarah Prescott

Overall, Sarah’s presentation had a profound effect on me. The ways in which she related the ancient myth of Leda and the Swan to such a prevalent problem modern society still faces each day astounded me. On average, there are 321,500 rapes each year in the United States alone. Statistically speaking one out of every six women has been the victim of sexual violence. While women are obviously the main victims of rape, ten percent of all rape cases are those with male victims as well. Consensual sex is indeed a thing of beauty, but when it becomes perverted and transformed into the grotesque form of violence, it is anything but beauty. The myth of Leda and the Swan serves as a grim reminder of a serious problem that is oftentimes overlooked, swept under the rug, and forgotten. The first step to ending the trauma that affects 321,500 and untold numbers of other people each year is to end rape culture. The Nation has a wonderful read about ways in which to do just that.

Sarah Prescott attends Louisiana Tech University where she is pursuing a Bachelors in Fine Arts with a minor in art history. She has recently been accepted to the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore where she will pursue a Masters of Fine Art in community art in the fall. In her spare time, Sarah enjoys spending time with her rescue dog, Violet, a lab/pit bull mix. Be sure to visit her website at and follow her on instagram at “esempres”.


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