Saturn Devouring His Son: the painting meaning & analysis

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Anticipator and forerunner of the imaginative epiphanies of the metaphysical and surrealist trends, Francisco Goya marks the beginning of the experimental psychology connected to the mechanisms of the unconscious, moving away from the classical tradition: his masterful technical mastery (not dissimilar to that of Velasquez for the pictorial colorism or the chiaroscuro sector of Rembrandt in his engravings) is centered on the expression of human behavior as a terrain abused by the irrational coercion (therefore antipodal to Enlightenment ideas) of nightmares, monsters, and obsessions. Before we get to the meaning and the analysis of his painting Saturn Devouring His Son, we need to understand how Goya arrived at it.

The choice to uproot himself from traditional stylistic preferences linked to classicism makes Goya’s art difficult to place within a precise artistic register, creating rather a personal unicum and a path more as an individual than as a painter, a very intimate journey traversed in complete solitude, closed and locked up, swallowed up, in the walls of his humble home.

The Great He-Goat, 1797-98

Mixed between genetic links with the chrono-historical motivations of the Enlightenment and a passion for the irrational which has within itself the germ of the romantic ideas, the Spanish artist fully understands his dualistic love between what is mind, reason, intellect, and the fiery sphere of feeling alone, whatever it may be, and so he chooses to keep his foot in both stirrups, straddling a labile border furrow, trying to give life to a communicative, content and thematic whole.

Goya is a perfect protagonist of his time, living the historical-political issues of those years to the fullest: in a particularly colorful way, he suffered the intentions of the French Revolution perceived as a very painful tear of humanity as a whole. He experiences it as an artist which promotes and re-proposes those terrible sensations of damnation, transposing reality into a hallucinated and unbecoming waking nightmare. That period, undoubtedly his best from a creative point of view, allowed him to arrive at the famous dark manner that characterized a significant number of his most famous paintings, immediately making them unequivocally belonging to the Spanish master that we all know as a trademark of his factory.

Witches’ Sabbath, 1821-23

The Enlightenment ideas seem to crumble under one’s feet when one understands the untruthfulness of the supremacy of reason and logical choice in favor of the extreme, albeit frightening, concreteness of human instincts: there is nothing interesting, nothing sentimentally moving, in seeing glossy monotonous tapestries of scenarios of bourgeois daily life or of courtly religious composure; on the contrary, one cannot remain indifferent when faced with brutal images of shocking violence and their tragic implications.

So he opts for catastrophic panoramas of attacks by brutal bandits, epic shipwrecks of boats and their anti-hero fishermen, imperious fires where fire serves to evoke physical pain, eternal infernal torment, mental asylums as the perfect stereotypical declination of madness. Deviant human beings that appear like terrifying monsters.

Goya’s more than pessimistic investigation analyzes the blasphemous aspect of the acclaimed medal of reason to bring to light the catastrophic results that it perpetrates over time, endless tragedies such as the barbarism of the War of Independence. The Age of Enlightenment supports the hegemony of reason as an absolute instrument of human uniqueness and power, an impregnable emblem of the supremacy of man in and over the world: Goya intervenes with a wave of derision and pity for this foolish vision, revealing that as much as reason wants to express itself in terms of superiority over things and nature, it cannot prevent or shape the destiny that awaits it (always inevitably tragic).

A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, 1820-1823

The maximum expressiveness of his artistic intentions explodes with his ruthless black paintings, incontrovertible results of the cosmic and ancestral victory of malevolent fate over man, destined for a timeless tragic epilogue. But the painter is not critical or defeatist, on the contrary, precisely as the progenitor of romantic tastes, he looks ahead to destiny with resigned eyes on one side and fascination on the other, with that particular taste for the mysterious and aberrant which ultimately inhabits and unifies all humanity.

The black paintings represent a sort of profound and intimate communion of the artist with his most tormented worries and his most ardent passions, so personal that they become almost a wall ornament of his home, a confidential mnemonic reminder to himself: the walls of his house replaced the canvas support and were completely frescoed like primordial decorations, rock sculptures that scream all the agony of an old man now over seventy years old who no longer has any desire to communicate something. He chooses a monastic life to negotiate passions and torments with himself. Among the fourteen wall paintings found on the plaster of the Madrid house, the imprint of Saturn devouring his son remains, probably the most famous also for the choice of a traditional subject already known with the Flemish version of the same name by Rubens, dated 1637-1638.

Left: Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring HIs Son, 1819-23
Right: Peter Paul Rubens, Saturn, 1636

But if the latter chooses to transpose onto the canvas a scenario which, albeit in the aberrant manifestation of paternal cannibalism, maintains a certain formal composure and theatricality, Goya disfigures the subjects of any form of classicism and aesthetic perfection, making them monstrous, earthly, hallucinate.

The scene opens from the darkness, a darkness of inner content rather than environmental, and opens the doors to the infernal and brutal march of the God Saturn, so greedy for the power granted to him and terrified by the prophetic possibility that one of his sons could overthrow him, that he kills them by tearing off their limbs. Saturn’s passion is animalistic and out of control, manifested by his large jaws like a black chasm, smeared with the living blood of a now lifeless body; the bulging eyes seem to be staring at something unspecified, they look but do not see, blinded by greed and desire, the hands crush the flesh of the lifeless son, evoking the possession and coercive control he has as a father.

The figure of Saturn, as it was also for Rubens, is that of an easily recognizable old man with flaccid muscles and greyish hair, and it is natural to put it in parallel with Goya himself, who was facing firsthand the daily fear of old age as cognitive decline, and the possibility of disappearing and being replaced at any moment. Thus old age also becomes that point of life closest to death and madness: if Rubens’ Saturn feasts on the little baby moaning under his mouth that barely touches him, the Madrid painter is caught by a senile rhapsody that has nothing calculated and nothing rational, but is driven only by a primordial madness, by sanguine sensations and uncontrollable morbidity. Saturn’s soul is completely destroyed by the weight of a monstrous animality that leaves no room for compassion, ready for anything, even the disgraceful crime of slaughtering his son with his own greedy jaws. The details of the painting are undue and reduced to the minimum terms, still to emphasize a formal and dimensional naturalness sufficient and essential to illuminate the scene of spectral agony and sense of death: the bodies are naked and made in cold chromatic ranges, except for the game of light on the plastic parts of the limbs aimed at creating the flesh material. Saturn is planted on the ground with statuesque firmness, yet it is a bundle of tense nerves and contracted muscles ready for a Dionysian movement that is quite reminiscent of the terrible dances of a Sabbath.

Goya manages to emphasize the rhapsody of the old god with masterly care in the execution, with a very white sclera and a completely black iris, almost as if to evoke a hallucinated and anachronistic cartoon for adults: that particular shine is the evidence of the crazy streak that has now captured the soul of Saturn, completely depriving him of any sort of rationality, paternal love or sense of justice.

The analysis of Saturn Devouring His Son, in addition to the notable correlation with the state of physical and personal transience of the painter himself, would seem to favor a meaning of comparison between youth and old age, two periods of life so different that they are reduced to total incommunicability, to absolute psycho-emotional and physical distance, to disgust from one side to the other. Old age constitutes the elapsed time and Saturn is its controller, the one who deals with time and its continuous regeneration and replacement process: but accepting to be replaced, even if by one of his children, does not seem possible for the Roman god, who irrationally becomes a monster ready to crush the one to whom he gave his life, with the worst of brutality.

Nevertheless, Saturn is also time itself, something that has always existed and that forever runs forward towards the outside of the picture and beyond the painting, leaving nothing behind. Time marches on with voracity and vehemence and spares no one; it does not experience feelings of pity and has no soul, it leaves behind whatever it has created and moves towards new horizons, also ready to collapse. At the same time were the years of the tyranny of the monarch Francisco Ferdinand VII of Spain, a historic and unforgettable period of terror for the Spanish natives who had suffered the most serious atrocities as subjects and as human beings, so Goya, as a citizen of Madrid living this universal nightmare, creates this ravenous allegory, a symbolic representation of the King who mercilessly devours one of his subjects.

The mythological vision becomes exaggerated and romanticized, it overlaps with the nocturnal hallucination of the nightmare and with the historical reality as if they were only one thing. It is precisely violence that becomes pure energy of evil, it is evil, and nothing more evil than this could exist.

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