Saturn devouring his son
Francisco Goya y Lucientes was the leading figure in Spanish painting during the period 1785-1820. Goya lived through troubled times. The French Revolution (1789-95), for example, shattered the peace of the 18th century and led directly to a series of Continental catastrophes including the Peninsular War (1808-14), when Napoleon’s armies overran Spain. Meanwhile, Spain itself was ruled by an Absolute Monarchy, buttressed by a medieval Catholic Church, shadowed by the Inquisition. In addition, since the age of 46, Goya himself had suffered from profound deafness and periodic bouts of depression. As a result, he had turned – in his private painting – to a form of dark Romanticism, as illustrated by four different sets of artwork: a group of small-scale paintings on tin, known as his “Fantasy & Invention series” (1793); his “Caprices” (“Los Caprichos”) etching series (1797-99); his “Disasters of War” engraving series (1810-20), and his murals, known as the “Black Paintings” (1819-23). Consisting – in varying degrees – of Hogarth-style caricature art, nightmare fantasy pictures, and graphic imagery of bestial cruelty, this collection of works represented Goya’s bleak response to life: in particular the cruel and tragic events taking place in Spain during the 1800s.
Saturn Devouring his Son is a history painting that illustrates the myth of the Roman god Saturn, who, haunted by a prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of his sons, ate each of them moments after they were born. Although allegedly inspired by the more conventional “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1636, Prado, Madrid) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the cannibalistic ferocity with which Saturn is eating his child makes it horrifyingly unique.
In fact, the picture is a virtuoso rendering of a frenzied psychopath, caught in the darkness, who is unable to control his homicidal behaviour. Saturn’s rough nakedness, dishevelled hair and beard, wide-eyed stare, and aggressive movements all indicate a state of hysterical madness. He has already torn off and eaten his child’s head, the right arm and part of the left arm, and is about to take another bite from the left arm. He is gripping the dead child so tightly that his knuckles are white and blood oozes from the top of his hands. Furthermore, there is also evidence that in the original image – prior to being transferred to canvas – the god had a partially erect phallus, thus imbuing the work with even deeper horror.
As usual, some issues remain unclear. To begin with, the rounded buttocks and thighs of the half-eaten victim in Saturn’s hands are not those of a boy or man. It is clear therefore that he is eating one of his daughters. And she is no child but a well-developed young woman. So what does it all mean? Is it really an allegorical picture and, if so, who does Saturn represent? Some art experts believe that he may symbolize the autocratic Spanish state, devouring its own citizens; others interpret Saturn as the French Revolution, or even Napoleon. Goya himself left no clue as to the answer. In 1823, together with his young housekeeper, he moved to Bordeaux in France, where he died five years later.