Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son
In the deafening silence of the Quinta del Sordo, Goya splattered his dining room wall with a bloodcurdling scene of appalling violence: a crazed mythological god devouring the body of his own son.
Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-1823)
It is hard to encapsulate the horror of this scene. Gruesome doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Let’s start by addressing the subject matter; the painting depicts a well-known Greek myth (first written down by Hesiod in his Theogony, c.8th century B.C.). After overthrowing his father, the Greek Titan Cronus (later known by his Roman name Saturn) was told a prophecy that one of his sons would do the same to him. In order to prevent this prophecy, every time Saturn’s wife (Queen Rhea) bore a child, he would eat it, devouring it whole in one bite. At some point, his wife managed to hide away their youngest son Zeus, also known as Jupiter, who ended up fulfilling the prophecy and exiling his father, thereby ending the reign of the Titans.
While the myth in itself is disturbing, Goya has heightened its gore, rendering it as a haunting visceral cannibalistic nightmare.
Saturn’s hands sink into his child’s spine. He has already devoured his child’s head; his gaping mouth is about to bite of the left arm at the elbow. Blood oozes from his child’s neck, and runs down his arm and shoulders.
The body of Saturn’s child is rather mature. Rather than depicting a child, in line with the myth, Goya has painted one of Saturn’s children grown up. A mature human that was no doubt aware of his horrible fate as it was happening.
Goya also diverges from the myth by depicting Saturn devouring one limb at a time, as opposed to swallowing his child whole. In doing so, Goya has made the murder horrifically slow. We have discovered Saturn in the middle of his feast; and we see that there is still a lot more to devour.
Goya has also added a psychological element to the protagonist of the painting. In his painting, Saturn is not depicted as a mythical Titan, but as a frightened, crazed monster with angular limbs, crouching awkwardly in the dark.
His angular pose, disheveled hair, and wide bulging eyes suggest a crazed frenzy. His bulging eyes suggest that he himself is shocked at his own violence. They communicate a frenzied panic, fear, and shame.
So Saturn’s tight grip on his child’s body implies a ravenous hunger; as well as desperation, fear, and an awareness of his own gruesomeness.
But aside from the gore of this painting and its exploration of insanity, perhaps the scariest fact about this artwork is that it was never intended to be seen by anyone. Goya was not commissioned to paint it. He painted it for himself, for his own contemplation.
Now you’re probably thinking, what on earth prompted Goya to paint such an image? I’m afraid I don’t have a conclusive answer for you...
The Spanish artist painted this scene towards the end of his life, and in order to even begin to understand his state of mind, we need to go back in time...
Goya, born in Zaragoza, Spain, had a happy and untroubled childhood. After studying painting in Zaragoza, Madrid, and Rome, he worked at the Royal Tapestry Factory where he created Rococo tapestry cartoons depicting genre scenes of nobility and peasantry that adorned Spanish stately homes and palaces. He then became the court painter for King Charles IV in the Royal Court of Spain.
Then things started to go downhill, especially under the oppressive reign of Ferdinand VII.
Goya personally witnessed his country fall apart under the Spanish monarchy, then again under Napoleon's army, and then once again with the restoration of the monarchy.
Moreover, in 1793, at the age of 46, Goya was ravaged by an unknown illness that left him completely deaf. It has since been speculated that the cause was lead poisoning from his pigments.
With this sudden illness, and the many politics upheavals, Goya’s art took a dark turn. Goya began to see and paint his country with a forbidding clarity. Goya's series Los Caprichos (1797-1798) is composed of etchings of tragic and comic beasts and creatures that criticise Spanish society and reveal a grim social truth.
Following his invasion, Napoleon brutally killed those who resisted his campaign. The bloodshed and brutality of the Peninsular War scarred Goya. He made a series of sketches entitled The Disasters of War (1810-1820), portraying the brutalities of war and violence.
At the age of 72, a disheartened, fragile, and lonely Goya withdrew and isolated himself. He bought a farmhouse on the outskirts of Madrid called Quinta del Sordo, the Villa of the Deaf (after its previous owner). Goya, at that time, was also deaf.
In the solitude of his new home, Goya, unprompted and of his own will, painted 14 murals on the interior walls of his home.
At first (as revealed through radiography and stratigraphy) Goya painted luscious landscape scenes filled with blue skies, frolicking animals, mountains, and flowers.
But then, he changed his mind.
The landscapes were overthrown by images of darkness, horror, insanity, and doom. They include a ceremony enacted by witches and a Satanic goat; a dark and gloomy pilgrimage; and a lonely dog ominously submerged to its neck in an ambiguous muddy mire.
They have come to be known collectively as his Black Paintings.
These paintings were a turning point in Goya’s life, as well as in the History of Art. None of them are signed, dated, and none of them were given a title. Goya never mentioned these paintings or wrote about them; they weren’t even discovered until long after his death. Goya painted them for himself, for his own contemplation.
They feature nightmarish figures, executed with dark oils, emerging from the darkness…, their sadistic faces stain the interior of his dwelling.
Saturn devouring his Son, a scene of unspeakable cannibalism, was painted in the dining room, almost as if in an act of twisted satiric humour.
There are a lot of ways to read these paintings. Are they Goya’s way of exorcising his own demons or what he considered to be the demons of his country? Do they depict Goya’s greatest fears; his own nightmares? Indeed, the figures seem to have been painted with quick and hurried strokes that suggest the immediacy of nightmares. Their forms are at times are barely painted, almost as if Goya was struggling to remember the clarity of his nightmares. But was able to capture the feelings of terror, desperation, pain, despair, hopelessness, and doom that they awoke.
Perhaps they are Goya’s portrayal of what he considered to be humanity’s true nature, and the horrors we are ultimately capable of. His figures can be seen as caricatures that encapsulate the stupidity, cruelty, and violence of human nature in times of war, oppression, sickness, and famine.
Some scholars have read these paintings in light of Goya’s own life.
Saturn Devouring His Son in particular painting has been linked to Goya’s life as a father of many children (somewhere between five and twenty), and his implicit feeling of guilt at the fact that only one (Javier) survived long enough to become an adult.
Others consider the mural as a metaphor for Spain itself; namely an autocratic state whose pursuit of power destroyed its own citizens. Others still read Saturn as a representation of the French Revolution, and even Napoleon himself.
I personally believe that this painting and his Black Paintings in general, are the creative releases of a man aware of his impending death, disillusioned by society, broken by the trauma of war, and defeated by illness and the suffocating silence of his own deafness. I see them as a necessary creative and therapeutic release that allowed Goya to expel and exorcise his own traumas.
This painting, together with his other terrifying and disturbing murals, are ultimately what helped Goya escape from his own insanity.