Saturn by Francisco Goya (1819-1826)

On the 27th of February 1819 the Spanish painter Francisco Goya purchased a house named “Quinta del Sordo” (the house of the death) on the outskirts of Madrid. There the artist would create fourteen works with oil on plaster, in almost complete solitude. Paintings that no other artist of his century had dared to undertake; the famous ‘Black Paintings’.

These paintings would be the grand finale of Goya’s career ultimately leading to his exile from Spain. In these, he reveals everything. From the subjugation of man by the church, to the controlling nature of the state turning common people into animals for slaughter, to the blind and dark approach of the totalitarian Spanish monarchy. This series of paintings is not to be perceived as merely the settling of a score, Goya is far above that. Rather, the painter strives to ascertain some of the horror of human nature. He does this by painting something utterly unbearable to look at, Saturn devouring one of his own children.

To understand this scene, which is often referred to as one of the darkest, cruelest images ever painted in art, we must know some Greek Mythology. It had been professed that Cronus (Saturn), King of the Gods, would be overthrown, just has he had overthrown Uranus (Caelus) his father, by one of his children. After learning this, Cronus attempts to reverse this prophecy by consuming his children as they are born. However, one escapes – Zeus (Jupitar). This leads to Cronus’ inevitable fate, dethronment by his son.

No one knows the true reason as to why Goya decided to depict this story. Some say that it could be his interpretation of old age, others argue it to be a reflection of his relathionship to his own son, Javier. However one interprets the scene, this tale serves as very good allegory to represent Goya’s own sentiments towards power, particularly the way that those who hold it will do anything, even turn against one’s own, to retain it. You can see that it is not an attack on those in the position of specifically (Goya had done this before but not here). Rather, in ‘Saturn’ Goya attacks the very nature of power, highlighted in the way he paints Cronus’ eyes. You can read the desperation but also the contempt he feels towards his own actions. You can also see the way it is consuming the monsters own body, melting, twisting and fading into darkness.

Finally, it is important to note the cyclical nature of the story depicted – what happened once will happen again. This is important because Goya is also hinting that power, in its nature, is cyclical. Indeed, Goya himself having witnessed the destruction of Spain by it’s own monarchy, the further destruction with the invasions of Napoleon, and destruction again with the reinstitution of the Monarchy.

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