While there are many paintings in the history of the world, few of them are as disturbing as Francisco Goya’s, Saturn Devouring His Son. The painting is the artist’s depiction of the Greek Titan Cronus, who, after usurping his father, learns of a prophecy: that he is destined to be overthrown by one of his sons. To prevent this, every child born to him and his wife Rhea, he eats. He eats five of his children until Rhea hides away newly born son Zeus. Zeus goes on to fulfill the prophecy, overthrowing his father and establishing a new reign of the Olympians. The Greek myth is well known, but when Goya handles it there are major revisions. In the myth, the mighty titan Cronus kills his young child, a baby. He does this openly, without shame or compunction, and he kills them by swallowing his children whole. In fact, all of his children are alive in his stomach. But here, this painting depicts something else. Saturn, Cronus’ Roman counterpart, is old, hunched over, legs under him at an awkward angle, crazed, bent and withered, and the son that he devours is an adult, with well-defined muscles. Saturn has chewed off the head and arm of his son and his eyes are wide with fear. He looks like his evil deed has just been discovered in the dark. Saturn has bested his son. The future will not come to pass. Whatever progress was foretold, has ended.
When analyzing the painting within the framework of Panofsky’s three layered structure, the first layer, the “pre-iconographic stage”, is “undertaken when we describe the configurations of form and colour within a particular representation – it’s factual components” (Pooke 68). The factual components are the forms of the painting; therefore, the pre-iconographic stage is a formalist analysis. According to Pooke, the formal parts of a painting include the “line, tone, shape, texture and color” (34). When looking at Saturn Devouring His Son, the most obvious thread to note is the color. The painting is mostly black. Blackness oppressively fills the canvas on all sides but the tone of black varies from the darkest on the outside in, drawing the eye toward the lightest parts of the painting: both the stark white body of Saturn’s dead son, and the wide white eyes of Saturn himself. The only other color in the painting is the red blood around parts of the white body that Saturn has eaten, and faintly around where Saturn’s hands are gripping the body so tight, they’ve ripped into his back. The lines of the central figure, the body of the dead child, are vertically straight while the lines and general shape of hulking Saturn are curved, although the lines are secondary to the stark color differences. The small straight-lined white dead body of the son is diametrically opposed to the large curved hunched body of Titan Saturn. Goya has done everything he could to have these characters be as different from each other as he could.
The second stage is the iconographic stage. It is this in this stage “we would attempt to relate the symbolism of the motifs…with a narrative – what is actually being depicted in this scene (69). The iconographic stage is perhaps the easiest to understand, and the first noticed. Instead of analyzing the “form” of the painting like in the first stage, this stage refers to the “content” of the art. In other words, the iconographic stage is the story of the painting. The looming male figure is eating the body of an adult; therefore, this is a depiction of the crazed titan Cronus eating one of his children. What this all might mean, how the changes from the original myth to this sad and disturbing painting is what the third stage attempts to find.
The final “iconological stage” is an attempt to “ascertain the ‘underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion” (Pooke 69). It is in this stage, after looking at the form and the content, that we examine the context.
Francisco Goya was born on the 30th of March, 1746 in Spain. He attended a school for drawing and by around the age of 12, apprenticed in the workshop of painter Jose Luzan (Gudiol 7).
He moved to Madrid and on the 4th of December 1763, Goya presented himself to be examined for a student scholarship. The scholarship was awarded to another student Gregorio Ferro, who would go on to best Goya at several points in his career. Goya moved to Italy to study and returned to Spain a professional painter (Gudiol 8).
His first major job was at the Royal Tapestry Factory where he created tapestry cartoons to decorate the dining-rooms of princes and royals throughout Europe (Gassier 45).
Goya obtains the official title of Pintor del Rey, often painting in the rococo style that was nearing its end (Gudiol 14). Prior to this he often painted in the traditional rococo style: royals or even the “common people of…colourful and passionate Spain” (Gassier 45).
Pastel colors abound, these paintings are elegant, lighthearted, and fun with figures that are “convincingly natural within their landscape setting” (Gassier 45).
Goya doesn’t know it, but the easy times are about over, and his art, in form and content, will change completely.
The Spanish-Anglo wars enveloped Spain from 1796 to 1802, and then again from 1804 to 1808 as part of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1793 Goya fell seriously ill in Seville, and this illness, which would leave him deaf for the remaining years of his life, and had a marked effect on his work. His work became darker and more disturbing and while portraits were always a major facet of his work, witches and monsters will soon begin to dominate.
A major turning point for Goya’s art is when he creates Los Caprichos, a series of etchings that satirizes Spanish society.
In 1804 Goya applies to the post of Director General of the Royal Academy and is rejected on account of his deafness. He loses to Gregorio Ferro (Gudiol 65).
In 1808 both Spain and Goya suffer setbacks, France invades Portugal with the blessing of Spain, and confusion takes hold throughout the country. Uprisings begin to demand the abdication of King Charles IV.
Napoleon lures new King Fernando VII is lured along with ex-King Charles, his wife Maria Luisa, and others to Bayonne where they remain political prisoners (Gudiol 86).
The public demonstrates end in bloodshed and executions by firing squad, “a furious orgy of slashing, disembowelling and butchering which Goya was to immortalize in…two pictures painted in 1814” (Gassier 208).
Napoleon would sign the Treaty of Valençay with King Fernando VII ending the war, but Gudiol describes the situation like this,
[Spain], impoverished by six years of war, disorganized and, bristilling with political rivalries, and with the army and the people divided between the supporters of liberalism and the conservative factions, was offered as its only hope of salvation a treacherous king, egotistical, corrupt, and bigoted, who had spent his years in captivity in France fawning over Napoleon and sending him congratulations on his triumphs and victories in Spain. By an irony of fate he was to be hailed as El Deseado (98).
When King Fernando VII gains his crown back, he reestablishes the absolute monarchy and does away with the constitution of 1812 (Gudiol 100). Prosecution and imprisonment of liberals throughout the country lead to mass emigration (Gudiol 100). It’s noted that in 1816, Goya paints two portraits of nobility, and no more. Goya, old and infirm, moved to a house just outside Madrid, oddly enough called the Quinta del Sordo, the Villa of the Deaf. It’s here where Goya paints what is commonly referred to as “the Black Paintings,” 14 nightmarish paintings which Goya painted on the walls of the house, not intended for anyone else other than himself. In one of these paintings, a young man is being eaten by the father he was prophesied to usurp.
Only within the fuller context of Goya’s life and the tumultuous time in Spain’s history can we begin to understand the work of Saturn Devouring His Son. Because Cronus, time, devours all. Destroys all. And no one is immune to it. And no one can hide from it. And further still, when situated in Spain at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the tumultuous times Spain fell into, this piece suggests more about time and progress. Time continues on. But that progress being a natural consequence of time, is a myth.
This piece suggests that the work of modernity is not guaranteed. That it can be undone. And when modernity dies, it dies in the darkness.
Gassier, P. & Wilson, J. (1971) The Life and Complete Work of Francisco Goya: with a catalogue raisonné of the paintings, drawings, and engravings. New York: Reynal & Co. / William Morrow & Co.
Gudiol, J. (2008) Goya. Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa.
Pooke, G., & Newall, D. (2008). Art history: The basics. New York: Routledge.