An inhuman, horrifying expression. A dark palette reeking of bleakness, save the pale skin of the victim’s body. There’s little doubt that Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son is a masterpiece of the Grotesque – but what makes this painting so effective?
In Roman myth, there is a prophecy that one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow the titan in the same way that he overthrew his father previously. Attempting to counteract the prophecy, Saturn ate his children immediately after their birth. Only Jupiter escapes thanks to his mother and eventually fulfils the prophecy.
A nasty story indeed, when a father would not only kill, but gobble up his children – and it has consequently inspired many artists. You may be familiar with Peter Paul Rubens’ Saturn, a Baroque piece depicting Saturn hunching over his son, holding the infant with one arm and biting his chest. It is excellently crafted, depicting the titan’s power over the child through his piercing eyes and his muscular stature.
But while it is undoubtedly brilliant, and the child’s horrified gaze will undoubtedly give any viewer a shiver down their spine, it doesn’t even come close to the sheer terror of Francisco Goya’s take on the myth. But what is it that makes it so haunting?
When comparing Rubens’ with Goya’s version of Saturn, we can’t help but be amazed at the stark differences. Yes, there are many similarities: the scene is obviously the same, both feature largely a dark palette with a few exceptions on the bodies, and both are unquestionably terrifying.
But Goya’s painting seems to stand out more. Instead of the clearly human, muscular body, here we have a slightly off-looking, deranged, with not-quite-fitting limbs and a posture which seems more animalistic than human. Instead of a well-groomed beard, his hair appears unkempt and wild; instead of a calculated and powerful grasp with a single arm, his claw-like hands grasp the child’s body like a predator feasting on its prey. Whereas Rubens’ Saturn wears a cloth for clothing and grasps a staff, Goya’s Saturn appears naked.
But the most striking difference lies, perhaps, in the gaze. Rubens’ version depicts a piercing, determined gaze; the patriarch dominating the situation and taking control of his own destiny (or so he thinks). Goya’s painting? An egregious, mad gaze, seemingly out of control, and a gaping hole for a mouth. When looking into his eyes one would suspect that there is no soul present – or at least one which has been corrupted for a long time.
Why is it so unsettling?
The terror of Rubens’ painting stems from the scene, primarily. It is a nasty situation; the boy is in utter agony, the heartless father continues nevertheless, as cold and calculating as ever. It is a display of terrible power the god has over his own family, evoking an unsettling feeling through the depiction of cannibalism and the murder of an infant.
Goya’s painting, on the other hand, dwells in the realm of the uncanny. The scene is the same, but rather than depicting something which we understand very well as humans – power – this Saturn has lost all human features, despite his human shape. This Saturn is creepy, merely living out his urges, and is therefore something we dread – he represents a loss of control.
The depiction of the child, too, is void of humanity. Instead of the gaze of terror, here we have a decapitated body, and Saturn is in the progress of biting off one of the arms. The other one may well already have been bitten off (although it could be folded to the front). It’s a lot more gory than in Rubens’ version, despite the lack of a facial expression.
In short, the painting evokes some of our darkest fears. Loss of humanity, vulnerability, cannibalism, murder – a psychopath in frenzy who has lost all control over his own body, a madman suffering from a hysterical stroke, all combined in a bleak depiction which is sure to cause many a viewer nightmares.
Goya’s life was not a happy one. After becoming deaf in 1792, surviving two deadly diseases, and constant (understandable) worries that he was going insane, he bought a house near Madrid known as the Villa of the Deaf Man (not named after him), where he decorated the walls with a series of 14 works, now known as the Black Paintings, including Saturn.
Goya was, at this point, entirely embittered, resentful, and disappointed with the political situation in Spain. The pictures are, as the name suggests, all bleak and feature depraved takes on their subject matters. They are equally intense and unsettling and were probably never intended to be displayed publicly.
Aside from the surface-level depiction, art historians have interpreted the painting in many ways across the years. For some it represents the conflict between youth and old age, an allegory of the political situation in Spain, the wrath of God, a representation of his relationship with his own son, an allegory of the French revolution or of Napoleon.
But does the specific intention behind the painting really matter? I would suggest that the painting represents all of this, and more. It is a depiction of the general human condition when taken to an extreme situation and is, as such, applicable to a whole range of specifics.
And this is perhaps part of the genius of the painting. It is so wide-ranging, so understandably human in its display of a loss of humanity or the fear thereof, that it, perhaps, helps us understand a wider range of human terrors through its sheer depiction of animalistic frenzies.
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