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.
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.