Jay Scott Morgan


The Mystery of Goya's Saturn


The image is ineffaceable: the cannibal god on bended knees, engulfed in darkness; the mad haunted eyes and black-blooded mouth; the rending fingers, threaded with blood, and the ravaged figure in their grasp--a work of such indelible power, it seems to have existed before it was created, like some deep-rooted, banished memory, inescapable as nightmare.

It is the painting known as Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, by Francisco Goya, an image that has been imprinted on my psyche since I first viewed it in college, in 1969. Critics have called his Saturn a symbol of evil, a Satan, a monster, and that is how I first saw him--like a huge, mad Richard Nixon, devouring the young men of America through the Vietnam War: a cannibal father, jealous of our freedoms, determined to destroy us, our ideals, our hopes.

Thirty years later, the painting still evokes in me an interior terror, a sense of isolation, loneliness, grief--this god on his knees, tearing apart his own child, enshrouded in a blackness that is like a psychic tar, clinging to me, clinging me to him, to a drama of primal murderousness, so that now I seem to be participant as well as viewer. I look upon him, and I am implicated in the crime.

This story of fathers and sons is one of the foundation tales of Western tradition: Abraham binding his son Isaac for sacrifice on Mount Moriah; God offering the sacrifice of His son Jesus on the cross. The earliest version of the Kronos myth--Saturn is the later Roman name--was written down by Hesiod in his Theogony, around the eighth century, B.C.E.

First comes Chaos; then Earth/Gaia; Tartarus in the bowels of Earth; and finally Eros. Earth gives birth to Heaven, also known as Ouranos, and then bears twelve of his children, the last, "most terrible of sons/The crooked-scheming Kronos."* Earth and Ouranos have three more sons, so fearsome and mighty that Ouranos forces them back inside their mother, burying them alive. She forms a sickle, and asks her other sons to use it against their father, "For it was he/Who first began devising shameful acts." All are afraid, except Kronos. She gives him the sickle, hides him in her, and he castrates his father, preventing him from having more children, then assumes power among the Titans. But fear lives in his heart; a usurper himself, he learns that one of his own children will usurp him, and he devours them at birth:

As each child issued from the holy womb
And lay upon its mother's knees, each one
Was seized by mighty Kronos, and gulped down.

Through a ruse by his mother, the last born, Zeus, survives, leads a war against Kronos, and casts him down to Tartarus. Even gods cannot overcome Fate.


Goya produced a chalk drawing, Saturn Devouring His Sons, in 1796-97, most likely influenced by a Rubens painting of the same subject in Madrid's Royal Collection. Both works are illustrative of a literary theme, passionless, even morbidly comic. Rubens's Saturn is out on a stroll, his foot resting momentarily on a stone, one hand holding his staff, the other grasping his meal--his infant son--biting into the boy's chest like "a sturdy Flemish burgher stooping to a roast goose," to quote Wyndham Lewis. Goya's Titan is cunning-eyed; his mouth, clamped upon his son's leg to the thigh, is turned upwards in a leering grin; the legs of a second son he holds almost daintily, his pinky slightly raised. Neither work is likely to evoke more than a passing grimace from a viewer.

All of this changes with the Saturn of 1820-24, one of the series known as the Black Paintings. What returned Goya to this subject? What did he recognize in himself that charged the work with such raw, wounding power?


Goya and his wife, Josefa, had numerous children--between five and twenty: the exact number is unknown. Only one boy, Javier, survived beyond childhood. In Goya's letters to Martin Zapater, his friend from their school days in Saragossa, he often comments on Josefa's pregnancies, her illnesses, her many miscarriages.

My own wife had two miscarriages, one early in her pregnancy, the other at five months. She was forced to birth the second one--a boy--through induced labor, and the sight of his stringy, blood-marked fetus tormented me, as if some unspeakable, monstrous demon had entered her womb, and fed itself on his immeasurably vulnerable life.

I wonder: did the early deaths of his other children, reflected upon in the solitude of the Quinta del Sordo--the house he moved into in 1819, seven years after Josefa died--inspire Goya's vision of the cannibal god? Was he portraying his sense of potential cut off, of lives interrupted before they can begin?

Even as I suggest this possible interpretation, inconsistencies within the painting call it into question. The figure gripped in the giant's hands is no child, but a full grown adult, which leads to another, allied interpretation: Saturn/Kronos as the ancient deity Time, implacable devourer of all humankind.

Shortly before he began the Black Paintings, Goya survived a near fatal illness, documented in his Self-portrait with Dr. Arrieta, where the pained and weary artist, surrounded by dark, phantasmal faces, is ministered to by the doctor.

Did Goya, sick, deaf, in his seventies, paint his lonely terror of his own mortality through his Saturn?

But if the giant represents Time, why is he painted on bended knees, with spindly misshapen legs that seem unable to bear the weight of his enormous torso? Is this Goya's sardonic commentary on Spain's recent war with France--presenting a crippled Time, forced to overfeed on the numberless dead? On the dead of all wars? Did the early nineteenth century supply Saturn/Kronos with such quantities of corpses, that Time himself is brought to his knees, his wild eyes bulging, as if he were unable to stomach another bite? Or is the figure a symbol of war itself, the culminating portrait of the horrors he chronicled in his series of etchings, The Disasters of War, in 1810-1820?

Every interpretation of a painting rooted so complexly in the mind of Goya leads, as with dreams, to new interpretations.

In the universe before the coming of Christ, Saturn, frenziedly eating his own child-god, might be seen as engaged in an act of perverse communion. The Christian God sacrificed his son that all humankind might live; the Titan acts out of fear and jealousy, and the body of his child reveals not the mystery of resurrection, but the dark and violent mysteries of the psyche, a Tartarus of blood and madness, where all instincts and emotions merge, and consequence is forgotten. A realm of unconsciousness. Of mutilation and murder.

From this perspective, Saturn might be Goya's warning to humankind, whose wars and wanton cruelties, devotion to superstition and false gods will lead it to dissolution, to the Nada scrawled by the corpse as its last message in the etching, "Nothing. We shall see." (The Disasters of War #69)

And yet, for all the mythological, political, social, historical, and religious meanings we attach to the painting, there is something we still turn away from, the most basic theme--a man destroying his own son.

I think again of Javier, Goya's only child to survive to adulthood.

From the beginning, Goya loved him, pampered him, fretted over him.

"I have a son of four who is so beautiful that people look at him in the street in Madrid. He has been so ill that I haven't lived for all the period of his sickness. Thanks be to God he is now better," he wrote to Zapater, in 1789.

Fathers and sons enjoy, or are condemned to, the play of uniquely powerful forces of love and pride, disappointment and dominance, the scales forever unbalanced, sometimes seeming to shift in a single moment, then swaying back. Communications, in the best of circumstances, are infinitely complicated (I know; I have an eighteen-year-old son myself) and the effects of Goya's deafness should not be underestimated. It developed in 1793, when Javier was nine, and the use of sign language must have impeded dialogue. What remained unsaid between them? We subtly shade our speech through inflection, expecting understanding. Did Javier feel Goya's eyes always on him--as father, as deaf man, as artist--studying his face for clues to his thoughts?

Families are not spiritualized entities--they are cauldrons of emotional drama. The relations between family members are always mysterious, affected by currents never truly understood by outsiders. We can only speculate here, knowing the intricacies within our own families.

Goya had hopes that Javier would follow in his footsteps and devote himself to art. In 1803, he presented the plates and the remaining sets of his Caprichos to Charles IV, asking, as he writes in a letter to Cayetano Soler, for "some recompense for my son Francisco Javier Goya so that he may be able to travel; he has the inclination and a great disposition to improve himself." Later, he expressed to Soler his satisfaction for "the pension of twelve thousand reales that his majesty has conceded my son."

In 1805, Javier married the daughter of a respected, wealthy family from Saragossa. Goya undertook, in the marriage contract, to be financially responsible for the couple, their servants, any children they might have. In his later years, it was said that he had spent most of his wealth on his only child and his daughter-in-law, leaving little for himself.

Soon after the marriage, Goya painted a portrait of the twenty-one-year-old Javier. Despite his love and pride, he is an artist, and cannot help but render what he sees: a handsome, foppish, self-regarding young man with a somewhat weak chin, seeming to lacking the depth of character necessary to create great art.

At what age did Javier realize that he would never fulfill his father's ambitions for him?

Seven years later, as the war against Napoleon's armies was ending, Josefa died. Javier claimed his mother's inheritance, and when the property was divided, Goya gave to his son the house, library, and, curiously, nearly all his own art work in a collection of seventy-eight paintings and prints, like a man making restitution for genius denied in the blood. He kept for himself only two portraits: the bullfighter Romero, and the Duchess of Alba, the celebrated beauty he had followed to Andalusia in 1795, after she was widowed, and had lived with for almost a year, while Josefa and the twelve-year-old Javier remained in Madrid. In her will, signed during Goya's stay, the Duchess bequeathed a lifetime annuity for Javier.

In 1819, Goya retreated across the Manzanares River on the outskirts of Madrid to his villa, known coincidentally as the Quinta del Sordo, the House of the Deaf Man. He had already achieved the pre-eminent position of First Painter of the Royal Bedchamber, and was the most famous artist in Spain; survived war, pestilence, famine, a near-fatal illness; endured the deaths of so many loved ones. Surely he had earned, at seventy-three, an existence free of turmoil in the peace of the Quinta, if he so wished. Quickly, he filled the walls with vivid landscapes in lush greens and sky blues; mountains, rivers, donkeys, small figures; even a man dancing with castanets--all revealed in recent years through radiography and stratigraphy.

Then, something happens.

Goya suddenly unleashes his art, covering over the colorful landscapes, refusing himself the bland pleasures of the merely picturesque, recognizing in every surface a new opportunity, until the Quinta mirrors his internal world, the meanings personal, all sense of decoration dismissed. Only truth remains. On the dining room wall, two-and-a half feet by four-and-a-half feet, a thick-shouldered, murderous colossus begins to take shape. If he once exposed his son's nature in a portrait, he now strips himself bare with his Saturn.

One more time, we look at the painting.

Cover the right side of the face, and we see a Titan caught in the act, defying anyone to stop him, the bulging left eye staring wildly at some unseen witness to his savagery, his piratical coarseness heightened by the sharp vertical lines of the eyebrow, crossed like the stitches of a scar. Cover his left eye, and we are confronted by a being in pain, the dark pupil gazing down in horror at his own uncontrolled murderousness, the eyebrow curved upwards like an inverted question mark, as if he were asking, "Why am I compelled to do this?"


As an eighteen-year-old, I once saw, with revulsion, only the image of a gruesome giant, father as devourer. Thirty years later, I understand the hidden knowledge that evoked in Goya his terrible compassion for the cannibal god. The primal battle between fathers and sons is inescapable, the roots of such terrifying instincts too deep to be thoroughly excised. As fathers, we fear not only that we might destroy our sons--through anger, jealousy, fear; through our sometimes desperate love; through a thousand seemingly small sins--but that we secretly intend to destroy them. We want to protect them from the monsters that inhabit their nightmares, only to discover among the faces of those monsters our own.

Human beings are made free only by their admission of their darkest fears and impulses, and this admission, unalterably expressed, seems to have granted Goya a sense of well-being, as did the entire series of Black Paintings. Javier, writing after his father's death, "referred to the pleasure Goya had experienced in viewing daily in his house those pictures he had painted for himself with freedom and in accordance with his own genio."

The ancient myth that once provided him with the subject for an unmemorable drawing, becomes, in this late period of his life, the inspiration for uttering the unutterable. The irony would not, I believe, have been wasted on Goya: the very painting the world sees and shudders at--the image it considers one of the most horrifying in all Western art--had given its creator peace.



 *The quotations and references to the Kronos/Saturn myth are taken from Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, translated by Dorothea Wender, Penguin Books, 1973.