The Mystery of Goya’s Saturn
The painting known as ‘Saturn Devouring One of His Sons’, by Francisco Goya, presents us with a terrifying cannibal god, Kronos, whom he depicts as a wild, revolting figure, consuming his offspring. The ancient deity looks crazed, his eyes are atrocious and the painting is one of those which imprints itself on the psyche of those who examine it closely.
‘Saturn Devouring One of His Sons’ springing from the Kronos myth, was a part of Goya’s ‘Black Painting’ series when Goya ‘carved his fates and inscribed his nighmares directly onto plaster.’
The earliest version of the Kronos myth–Saturn is the later Roman name–was written down by Hesiod in his Theogony, around the eighth century, B.C.E.
First comes Chaos; then Earth/Gaia; Tartarus in the bowels of Earth; and finally Eros. Earth gives birth to Heaven, also known as Ouranos, and then bears twelve of his children, the last, “most terrible of sons/The crooked-scheming Kronos.” Earth and Ouranos have three more sons, so fearsome and mighty that Ouranos forces them back inside their mother, burying them alive. She forms a sickle, and asks her other sons to use it against their father, “For it was he/Who first began devising shameful acts.” All are afraid, except Kronos. She gives him the sickle, hides him in her, and he castrates his father, preventing him from having more children, then assumes power among the Titans. But fear lives in his heart; a usurper himself, he learns that one of his own children will usurp him, and he devours them at birth:
As each child issued from the holy womb
And lay upon its mother’s knees, each one
Was seized by mighty Kronos, and gulped down.
Through a ruse by his mother, the last born, Zeus, survives, leads a war against Kronos, and casts him down to Tartarus. Even gods cannot overcome Fate.
Reviewers have asked what it was that Goya recognized in himself that charged the work with such raw, wounding power? Jason Scott Morgan, for example, alludes to the traditional father and son narrative which has been presented in, amongst other documents, the Bible.
Maybe Goya was painting this narrative but I suspect not. Before he began the Black Paintings, Goya survived a near fatal illness, documented in his Self-portrait with Dr. Arrieta. Goya depicts himself as a “pained and weary artist, surrounded by dark, phantasmal faces.” It is plausible that Saturn was painted as a way to express the lonely terror of mortality. Since my husband’s body has been ravaged by a third round of bowel cancer, and we have faced the lonely terror of mortality, I have every reason to think that this is likely. If I could paint I would paint Atrophe, towering like a giant, scissors in hand, tormenting us with the reality that she has the power to cut the thread at any moment. Goya’s Saturn touches me deeply because it expresses shared pain and his Atropos paints the dark dreams that haunt me.
So what charged Goya’s painting of Saturn? As his health declined, as he stared creative impotence in the eyes – Saturn’s eyes, Atrophos’s scissors his work gathered momentum and a dark force. It doesn’t really matter if Goya threw away his pastels and used someone like Saturn as a metaphor to represent the terror of creative impotence. Who cares if Goya used Saturn as a metaphor to depict the ‘black dog’ that consumes artists offspring — that hungrily devours work deemed, for whatever reason, not to be of any merit, not to fit the stereotypical mould. The main thing is that Goya went right outside the square and painted with force that speaks with passion today.
I imagine Goya must have smiled wryly when he realised that he had captured the demonic figure who had lived with him all his life. But most of all I am grateful that he has so powerfully captured the demon who lurks in my nightmares, for I know now that I am not alone.