Saturn Devouring His Son is the name given to a painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828). According to the traditional interpretation, it depicts the Greek myth of the Titan, Cronus (in the title Romanised to Saturn), who, fearing that he would be overthrown by one of his children, ate each one upon their birth.
The work is one of the 14 Black Paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house, never intended for public view, sometime between 1819 and 1823. It was transferred to canvas after Goya’s death and as such is technically untitled. and has since been held in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
Already completely deaf in his left ear due to an illness in 1792, Goya suffered further medical issues in his early 70’s, an experience which led him to seriously question his own mortality and to retreat to his Madrid home, away from the public gaze he had earlier craved.
It was here that the artist painted a series of 14 works, known as ‘the black paintings’ (Spanish: Pinturas negras), directly onto the plaster walls of his home, presumably as an act of cathartic therapy, certainly not for public viewing. The series is made up of the following pictures:
Atropos (The Fates) (Átropos/Las Parcas), Two Old Men (Dos viejos/Un viejo y un fraile), Two Old Men Eating Soup (Dos viejos comiendo sopa), Fight with Cudgels (Duelo a garrotazos/La riña), Witches’ Sabbath (Aquelarre/El Gran Cabrón), Men Reading (Hombres leyendo), Judith and Holofernes (Judith y Holofernes), A Pilgrimage to San Isidro (La romería de San Isidro), Women Laughing (Mujeres riendo), Procession of the Holy Office (Peregrinación a la fuente de San Isidro/Procesión del Santo Oficio), The Dog (Perro semihundido/El perro), Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturno devorando a un hijo), La Leocadia (Una manola: doña Leocadia Zorrilla), and Fantastic Vision (Visión fantástica/Asmodea).
These titles have been assigned by artistic scholars, there is no evidence that Goya himself named them. To this end, Saturn Devouring His Son also goes by the name of Saturn, Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, Saturn Devouring his Children and Devoration. The painting is based on the Roman take of the originally Greek myth of the titan Saturn consuming one of his children.
The myth foretold that one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born. His wife Ops eventually hid his sixth son, Jupiter, on the island of Crete, deceiving Saturn by offering a stone wrapped in swaddling in his place. Jupiter eventually supplanted his father just as the prophecy had predicted.
The painting is said to reflect Goya’s ever-sinking mood, fuelled not only by illness but the civil unrest around Spain at the time. Goya may have also have been inspired by Peter Paul Rubens’ 1636 picture of the same name, though this earlier work is less brutal and frenzied than Goya’s take.
The painting, using mixed techniques, including oils, depicts Saturn feasting upon one of his sons. His child’s head and part of the left arm has already been consumed. The right arm has probably been eaten too, though it could be folded in front of the body and held in place by Saturn’s thumbs.
The titan is on the point of taking another bite from the left arm; as he looms from the darkness, his mouth gapes and his eyes are wide, suggesting madness and blind frenzy. The only other brightness in the picture comes from the white flesh, the red blood of the corpse, the white knuckles of Saturn as he digs his fingers into the back of the body.
There is evidence that the picture may have originally portrayed the titan with a partially erect penis, but, if ever present, this addition was lost due to the deterioration of the mural over time or during the transfer to canvas; in the picture today the area around his groin is indistinct. It may even have been over-painted deliberately before the picture was put on public display.
It was many years after the artist’s death that the wall paintings were carefully transferred from the plaster walls to canvas to both preserve them and allow them to finally displayed for a public audience. Inevitably, this process caused damage of varying extents to the 14 paintings, extensive ‘touching-up’ being required by other artists, though Saturn appears to have fared better than most of the others. Since 1889, the work has been on display at Madrid’s Prado Museum.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
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