Definitions

Devouring One

Saturn Devouring His Son

Saturn Devouring His Son is the name given to a painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. It depicts the Greek myth of Cronus (in the title Romanised to Saturn), who, fearing that his children would supplant him, ate each one upon their birth. It is one of the series of Black Paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house sometime between 1819 and 1823.

After Goya's death the work was transferred to canvas, and now resides in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Background

In 1819, Goya purchased a house on the banks of Manzanares near Madrid called Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf Man). It was a small two-story house which was named after a previous occupant who had been deaf, although the name was fitting for Goya too, who had been left deaf after contracting a fever in 1792. Between 1819 and 1823, when he left the house to move to Bordeaux, Goya produced a series of 14 works, which he painted with oils directly onto the walls of the house. At the age of 73, and having survived two life-threatening illnesses, Goya was likely to have been concerned with his own mortality, and was increasingly embittered by the civil strife occurring in Spain. Although he initially decorated the rooms of the house with more inspiring images, in time he overpainted them all with the intense haunting pictures known today as the Black Paintings. Uncommissioned and never meant for public display, these pictures reflect his darkening mood with some intense scenes of malevolence and conflict.

Saturn Devouring His Son, a disturbing portrait of the god Saturn consuming one of his children, was one of six works with which Goya decorated the dining room. According to Roman myth, it had been foretold that one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. To prevent this coming to pass, Saturn would eat each of his children as soon as they were 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. Just as the prophecy had predicted, Jupiter eventually supplanted his father.

Goya never named the works he produced at Quinta del Sordo; the names were assigned by others after his death, and this painting is also known as just Saturn, Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, Saturn Devouring his Children or by the Spanish names Saturno devorando a su hijo or Saturno devorando a un hijo.

Painting

Goya 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 crushing grip. The god is on the point of taking another bite from the left arm; as he looms from the darkness, his mouth gapes and his eyes bulge white with the appearance of madness. The only other brightness in the picture comes from the white flesh and red blood of the corpse and 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 disturbing 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.

Various interpretations of the meaning of the picture have been offered: the conflict between youth and old age, time as the devourer of all things, the wrath of God and an allegory of the situation in Spain, where the fatherland consumed its own children in wars and revolution. There have been explanations rooted in Goya's relationships with his own son, Xavier, the only of his six children to survive to adulthood, or with his live-in housekeeper and possible mistress, Leocadia Weiss; the sex of the body being consumed can not be determined with certainty. If Goya made any notes on the picture, they have not survived and as he never intended the picture for public exhibition he probably had little interest in explaining its significance. It has been said that the painting is "essential to our understanding of the human condition in modern times, just as Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling is essential to understanding the tenor of the 16th century".

Goya may have been inspired by Peter Paul Rubens' 1636 picture of the same name. Rubens' painting, also held at the Museo del Prado, is a brighter, more conventional treatment of the myth: his Saturn exhibits none of the cannibalistic ferocity portrayed in Goya's rendition. However, some critics have suggested that Rubens' portrayal is the more horrific: the god is portrayed as a calculating remorseless killer, who – fearing for his own position of power–murders his innocent child. Goya's vision, on the other hand, shows a man driven mad by the act of killing his own son. In addition, the body of the son in Goya's picture is that of an adult, not the helpless baby depicted by Rubens. Goya had produced a chalk drawing of the same subject in 1796-7 that was closer in tone to Rubens' work: it showed a Saturn similar in appearance to that of Rubens', daintily biting on the leg of one of his sons while he holds another like a leg of chicken, with none of the gore or madness of the later work.

Transfer from the Quinta del Sordo

Although never meant to be seen by the public, the paintings were obviously important works in Goya's oeuvre. When Goya went into self-imposed exile in France in 1823, he passed Quinta del Sordo to his grandson, Mariano. After various changes of ownership, the house came into the possession of the French Baron d'Erlanger in 1874. After 70 years on the walls of Quinta del Sordo, the murals were deteriorating badly and, in order to preserve them, the new owner of the house had them transferred to canvas under the direction of Salvador Martinez Cubells, the curator of the Museo del Prado. After showing them at the Exposition Universelle of 1878 in Paris, d'Erlanger eventually donated them to the Spanish state. The effects of time on the murals, coupled with the inevitable damage caused by the delicate operation of mounting the crumbling plaster on canvas, meant that most of the murals required restoration work and some detail may have been lost, but in this respect Saturn Devouring His Son appears to have fared better than some of the other works.

Notes

References

See also

  • Dave Brown - cartoonist who adapted the painting to a political cartoon

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