Leda & the Swan    

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Illuminating Manuscripts

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Johann Sebastian Bach

Man of Genius

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A Lecterphile in Florence

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Illuminating Manuscripts Masthead
The Crest of the Serpent
copyright 2000, by Leeker17
The great dragon that adorns the front of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal once again testifies to the research put into his works.  Together let us explore the fascinating history of this symbol and what that says in relation to Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

Visconti Coat of ArmsIndeed, the sculpture on the front of Hannibal is the heraldic coat of arms of the Visconti family.  If the reader recalls Harris tells us that Dr. Lecter’s mother was a highborn Italian.  It is quite ingenious of Mr. Harris to tie the coat of arms to Lecter; we shall get back to this later.  Now, let us explore the history and symbolism behind the Visconti coat of arms.

In heraldic symbols the serpent represents wisdom, cunning, and mystery. There is no need to belabor the obvious parallels to Dr. Lecter.  There are numerous references made by Mason Verger and by the gypsy woman to Dr. Lecter being Satan.  With an ironic Miltonian twist Lecter is described as, “Walking to and fro on the earth” and being imperially slim (both qualities of Satan).  In the account of Genesis Satan is said to have appeared in the form of a serpent.  So the snake represents not only the cunning and power of the Visconti family but also, has the double meaning of referring to Hannibal Lecter’s own power and cunning.

It is interesting to note that the person in the jaws of the snake is not being swallowed but is being born.  A reference to this shield is found in Alciato’s Book of Emblems.

Alciato's Book of Emblems IllustrationTo the most illustrious Massimiliano, Duke of Milan.  An infant springing from the jaws of a curling snake is your family’s noble device.  We saw the Pellean king had made such coins, and had celebrated with them his own decent.  It teaches that while he was sown from the seed of Ammon, his mother was fooled by the image of a snake and that he was the offspring of divine seed.  He comes forth from the mouth.  Is it because in this way, some claim, certain snakes bear their young, or because Pallas sprang that way from the head of Jupiter?

There is a great deal of mythological influence upon this Emblem.  The aforementioned Pellaean king is Alexander the Great.  Plutarch in Lives recounts a pertinent legend about Alexander’s mother, Olympias.  The legend is as follows, “A serpent was once seen lying stretched out by her side, as she slept, and this dulled Phillip’s attentions to his wife.  He no longer came to sleep by her side.”  Plutarch suggest that Alexander’s father was the god Ammon (Egypt’s equivalent to Jupiter/Zeus).  Now, the legend of Pallas Athena pertains to the child coming out of the serpent’s mouth.  Pliny the Elder talks about certain snakes, which produce young from their mouths.  Ovid in Metamorphosis tells that Athena sprang full-grown from the head of Jupiter. 

Thus, step by the step the shield is explained by the use of riddles.  Answers to the riddles suggest political power in the form of the conquering general Alexander, natural mystery symbolized by snakes, and divine power represented by Athena.  Thomas Harris uses these same images to suggest things about Hannibal Lecter.  In Lecter’s case; Alexander represents the power Dr. Lecter exerts over his surrounding and other people, the snake symbolizes the wisdom that Lecter has over the minds of people and his almost Mephisto like qualities.  It is possible the snake is also a sly reference to Satan.  Athena suggests the supposed supernatural qualities of Dr. Lecter as evidenced in the book, “Hannibal Lecter was to some of the servants a frightening child, frighteningly intense, preternaturally knowing.”

In 1447 the Sforza family took over control of Milan and Lombardy from the Visconti.  Instead of using a different coat of arms the Sforza continued to use the Argent a serpent vert or serpent with a child.  It was in this year that the ducal arm was changed slightly.  The crown was taken off and the meaning was changed to Argent a serpent (without a crown) and instead of child being born out of it a Saracen was being swallowed.  These changes were to honor and recall certain traits of one Lodovico Sforza.  He was both cunning and power hungry.  The picture on the front of Hannibal was taken from the crest carved upon Castello Sforzesco in downtown Milan.

Now as we see the serpent is shown to bore children from it’s mouth and to swallow Saracens.  This shows a dual nature of Dr. Lecter.  If the serpent symbolizes Lecter than the child being born out of it symbolizes change and new birth.  This could be interpreted as the change he implemented within Clarice Starling.  On the opposite end the Saracen infidels could represent the “herd” or infidels that Dr. Lecter consumes.

Once again Thomas Harris has illustrated his tremendous and painstaking research.  It is quite appropriate that the Visconti Ducal arms were transformed into a metaphor of the Dr.’s qualities and attributes.  Kudos to Mr. Harris. I think the Good Doctor would approve.

 

 

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