Saturn Devouring His Son

Francisco Goya
Keywords: SaturnDevouring

Work Overview

Saturn Devouring His Son
Spanish: Saturno devorando a su hijo
Artist Francisco Goya
Year c. 1819–1823
Medium Oil mural transferred to canvas
Dimensions 143 cm × 81 cm (56 in × 32 in)
Style   Romanticism
Series   The black paintings
Genre   mythological painting
Location Museo del Prado, Madrid

Saturn Devouring His Son is the name given to a painting by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. According to the traditional interpretation, it depicts the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus (in the title Romanized to Saturn), who, fearing that he would be overthrown by one of his children,[1] ate each one upon their birth. The work is one of the 14 Black Paintings that Goya painted directly onto the walls of his house sometime between 1819 and 1823. It was transferred to canvas after Goya's death and has since been held in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

In 1819, Goya purchased a house on the banks of Manzanares near Madrid called Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf Man). It was a two-story house which was named after a previous occupant who had been deaf, although the name was fitting for Goya too, who had been left deaf after contracting a fever in 1792. Between 1819 and 1823, when he left the house to move to Bordeaux, Goya produced a series of 14 works, which he painted with oils directly onto the walls of the house. At the age of 73, and having survived two life-threatening illnesses, Goya was likely to have been concerned with his own mortality, and was increasingly embittered by the civil strife occurring in Spain. Although he initially decorated the rooms of the house with more inspiring images, in time he overpainted them all with the intense haunting pictures known today as the Black Paintings. Uncommissioned and never meant for public display, these pictures reflect his darkening mood with some intense scenes of malevolence and conflict.[2]

Saturn Devouring His Son, a disturbing portrait of the titan Saturn consuming one of his children, was one of six works with which Goya decorated the dining room. According to Roman myth (inspired by the original Greek myth), it had been foretold that one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born. His wife Ops eventually hid his third son, Jupiter, on the island of Crete, deceiving Saturn by offering a stone wrapped in swaddling in his place. Jupiter eventually supplanted his father just as the prophecy had predicted.

Goya never named the works he produced at Quinta del Sordo; the names were assigned by others after his death,[3] and this painting is also known as just Saturn, Saturn Devouring One of His Sons, Saturn Devouring his Children or by the Spanish names Saturno devorando a su hijo or Saturno devorando a un hijo.

Goya depicts Saturn feasting upon one of his sons. His child's head and part of the left arm have already been consumed. The right arm has probably been eaten too, though it could be folded in front of the body and held in place by Saturn's thumbs. The titan is on the point of taking another bite from the left arm; as he looms from the darkness, his mouth gapes and his eyes bulge whitely. The only other brightness in the picture comes from the white flesh, the red blood of the corpse, the white knuckles of Saturn as he digs his fingers into the back of the body. There is evidence that the picture may have originally portrayed the titan with a partially erect penis,[5] but, if ever present, this addition was lost due to the deterioration of the mural over time or during the transfer to canvas; in the picture today the area around his groin is indistinct. It may even have been overpainted deliberately before the picture was put on public display.

Various interpretations of the meaning of the picture have been offered: the conflict between youth and old age, time as the devourer of all things, the wrath of God and an allegory of the situation in Spain, where the fatherland consumed its own children in wars and revolution. There have been explanations rooted in Goya's relationships with his own son, Xavier, the only of his six children to survive to adulthood, or with his live-in housekeeper and possible mistress, Leocadia Weiss; the sex of the body being consumed can not be determined with certainty. If Goya made any notes on the picture, they have not survived; as he never intended the picture for public exhibition, he probably had little interest in explaining its significance. It has been said that the painting is "essential to our understanding of the human condition in modern times, just as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is essential to understanding the tenor of the 16th century".[7]

Goya may have been inspired by Peter Paul Rubens' 1636 picture of the same name. Rubens' painting, also held at the Museo del Prado, is a brighter, more conventional treatment of the myth: his Saturn exhibits less of the cannibalistic ferocity portrayed in Goya's rendition. However, some critics have suggested that Rubens' portrayal is the more horrific: the god is portrayed as a calculating remorseless killer, who – fearing for his own position of power – murders his innocent child. Goya's vision, on the other hand, shows a man driven mad by the act of killing his own son. In addition, the body of the son in Goya's picture is that of an adult, not the helpless baby depicted by Rubens. Goya had produced a chalk drawing of the same subject in 1796-7 that was closer in tone to Rubens' work: it showed a Saturn similar in appearance to that of Rubens', daintily biting on the leg of one of his sons while he holds another like a leg of chicken, with none of the gore or madness of the later work. Goya scholar Fred Licht has raised doubts regarding the traditional title however, noting that the classical iconographical attributes associated with Saturn are absent from the painting, and the body of the smaller figure does not resemble that of an infant.[3] The rounded buttocks and wide hips of the headless corpse has also called into question the identification of this figure as a male.

Although they were not meant to be seen by the public, the paintings remain important works in Goya's oeuvre. When Goya went into self-imposed exile in France in 1823, he passed Quinta del Sordo to his grandson, Mariano. After various changes of ownership, the house came into the possession of the Belgian Baron Emile d'Erlanger in 1874. After 70 years on the walls of Quinta del Sordo, the murals were deteriorating badly and, in order to preserve them, the new owner of the house had them transferred to canvas under the direction of Salvador Martínez Cubells, the chief art restorer at the Museo del Prado. After showing them at the Exposition Universelle of 1878 in Paris, d'Erlanger eventually donated them to the Spanish state. The effects of time on the murals, coupled with the inevitable damage caused by the delicate operation of mounting the crumbling plaster on canvas, meant that most of the murals required restoration work and some detail may have been lost, but in this respect Saturn Devouring His Son appears to have fared better than some of the other works.

Francisco Goya y Lucientes was the leading figure in Spanish painting during the period 1785-1820. A worthy successor to the great Old Masters of the Spanish Baroque, like El Greco (1541-1614), Jusepe Ribera (1591-1652), Zurbaran (1598-1664) and Velazquez (1599-1660), Goya lived through troubled times. The French Revolution (1789-95), for example, shattered the peace of the 18th century and led directly to a series of Continental catastrophes including the Peninsular War (1808-14), when Napoleon's armies overran Spain. Meanwhile, Spain itself was ruled by an Absolute Monarchy, buttressed by a medieval Catholic Church, shadowed by the Inquisition. In addition, since the age of 46, Goya himself had suffered from profound deafness and periodic bouts of depression. As a result, he had turned - in his private painting - to a form of dark Romanticism, as illustrated by four different sets of artwork: a group of small-scale paintings on tin, known as his "Fantasy & Invention series" (1793); his "Caprices" ("Los Caprichos") etching series (1797-99); his "Disasters of War" engraving series (1810-20), and his murals, known as the "Black Paintings" (1819-23). Consisting - in varying degrees - of Hogarth-style caricature art, nightmare fantasy pictures, and graphic imagery of bestial cruelty, this collection of works represented Goya's bleak response to life: in particular the cruel and tragic events taking place in Spain during the 1800s. Note however that none of these works were designed for public consumption, and all were in stark contrast to his official output of portrait art and religious paintings for the Spanish royal court and the nobility.

Saturn Devouring his Son, one of Goya's most horrific and unforgettable images, belongs to the series of so-called "Black Paintings." These murals were painted by Goya directly onto the plaster walls of his farmhouse (known as Quinta del Sordo, the "Villa of the deaf man") - situated on the banks of the Manzanares river near Madrid - which he had purchased as a final retreat in 1819. To begin with he decorated the walls with more uplifting images, but over time he overpainted them with a set of far more violent and disturbing pictures, which no doubt reflected his increasing depression and paranoia, as well as fears about his own approaching death. Goya did not write about these paintings, is not known to have spoken about them, and made no effort to name them. Names were chosen by other people years after his death, based upon the presumed content and meaning of each work. Moreover, the pictures remained untouched on the walls for almost 50 years: it was only in 1874 that they were transferred from the walls to canvas. 

Saturn Devouring his Son is a history painting that illustrates the myth of the Roman god Saturn, who, haunted by a prophecy that he would be overthrown by one of his sons, ate each of them moments after they were born. (In the end, his wife hid his sixth son, Jupiter, who duly overthrew Saturn just as the prophecy had predicted.) Although allegedly inspired by the more conventional "Saturn Devouring His Son" (1636, Prado, Madrid) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the cannibalistic ferocity with which Saturn is eating his child makes it horrifyingly unique.

In fact, the picture is a virtuoso rendering of a frenzied psychopath, caught in the darkness, who is unable to control his homicidal behaviour. Saturn's rough nakedness, dishevelled hair and beard, wide-eyed stare, and aggressive movements all indicate a state of hysterical madness. He has already torn off and eaten his child's head, the right arm and part of the left arm, and is about to take another bite from the left arm. He is gripping the dead child so tightly that his knuckles are white and blood oozes from the top of his hands. Furthermore, there is also evidence that in the original image - prior to being transferred to canvas - the god had a partially erect phallus, thus imbuing the work with even deeper horror.

As usual, some issues remain unclear. To begin with, the rounded buttocks and thighs of the half-eaten victim in Saturn's hands are not those of a boy or man. It is clear therefore that he is eating one of his daughters. And she is no child but a well-developed young woman. So what does it all mean? Is it really an allegorical picture and, if so, who does Saturn represent? Some art experts believe that he may symbolize the autocratic Spanish state, devouring its own citizens; others interpret Saturn as the French Revolution, or even Napoleon. Goya himself left no clue as to the answer. In 1823, together with his young housekeeper, he moved to Bordeaux in France, where he died five years later.

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Saturn Devouring His Children
Francisco Goya, c. 1820

Prado, Madrid

Fred Licht points out a connection between Goya's image and contemporary anti-Semitism:

"To Goya's contemporaries, the story of Saturn was not the only story that involved the killing and eating of infants. Among the persistent legends that were constantly fostered, especially by more ignorant clergymen, there was the quite widely believed notion that Jews, in order to make their Passover bread, needed the blood of a Christian infant. Goya, who had all his life fought against harmful superstition and false beliefs, must have been familiar with this old story. All over Europe, printed broadsides, as well as painted and even sculptural representations of this story, kept the population eternally agitated against the Jewish communities. Most of these nomuments and paintings have disappeared, swept away during the 19th-century liberalization of religious policy. However, a few, such as the Kindlifresserbrunnen [Child Eater Well] at Berne [Switzerland], still survive. It may be that a thorough investigation of popular images and broadsides will reveal that illustrations of the ritual eating of children on the part of Jews were still widespread in Spain and that Goya, always  alert to the vigor and expressiveness of popular imagery and popular imagination, derived his image from the so-called blood-libel legend as well as from the Greek legend of Saturn."

Fred Licht, Goya. The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art (New York: Universe Books, 1979), pp. 169-70.


Nigel Glendinning explains how Goya’s “Black Paintings” came to the Prado:

“The French banker of German origin, Baron Frédéric-Emil d’Erlanger, who apparently bought Goya’s house in March 1873 in the belief that property to the west of Madrid was ripe for development, paid about 42,500 for the paintings to be transferred to canvas…showed them at the Great Exhibition [World’s Fair] in Paris in 1878, and gave them to the Spanish government three years later. Salvador Martinez Cubells (1845-1914), an artist who had been appointed Chief Restorer at the Prado in 1869 at the age of twenty-four, supervised the transfer and restored the paintings between 1874 and 1878.”

Nigel Glendinning, “The Strange Translation of Goya’s ‘Black Paintings,’” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 117, no. 868 (July 1975): 466.

Jay Scott Morgan speculates on the inspiration for Saturn Devouring His Children :

“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 upward in a leering grin; the legs of a second son he holds almost daintily, his pinky slightly raised….
          Goya and his wife, Josefa, had numerous children – between five and twenty: the exact number is unknown. Only one boy, Javier, survived beyond childhood….I wonder: did the early deaths of his other children, reflected upon in the solitude of the Quinta del Sordo [House of the Deaf Man] – the house he moved into in 1819, seven years after Josefa died – inspire Goya’s vision of the cannibal god?”

Jay Scott Morgan, “The Mystery of Goya’s Saturn,” New England Review, vol. 22, no. 3 (2001): 40.

John Ciofalo speculates that the figure being devoured is female and offers the following interpretation:

“Goya’s Saturn is not devouring his male sons as mythology would have it, and as Rubens, and also Goya in his earlier drawing, had shown him. Here the victim appears to be an adult and, given the curvaceous buttocks and legs, a female.  Moreover, in the other versions, the sons are alive and struggling or at least have heads, so the viewer is more able to identify or sympathize. This victim is not struggling in Saturn’s vice-like, blood-oozing grip, which literally cuts into her body, because she is already dead, not to mention headless. She does not, to say the least, encourage identification. The identification here flows toward Saturn. The overwhelming feeling of the image is one of violent and insatiable lust, underscored, to put it mildly, by the livid and enormously engorged penis between his legs. Utter male fury has hardly before or since been captured so vividly.
          Saturn is an image of a myth stripped to its violent core….”

John J. Ciofalo, The Self-Portraits of Francisco Goya (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 157-9.


Poet Frederick Turner (b. 1943) wrote a poem in 1984 inspired by Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children. This is an excerpt:

   On Goya’s Saturn

  That god who stares from the picture-space
  As if he—only now it’s done,
  The madness slaked—can recognize the face
  Whose blood and brains he gulped, to be his son,
  Catches the humanist’s eye.
  Chronus, blind time, knowing himself again
  To be Kronos the wretched King,
  Squirms like a frog across the void. His pain
  Goya suggests in the stiff dance he’s doing;
  The dark shape of why
  Is shadowed in the history of Spain.
  The deed of sacrifice once done
  Is such as never can be done again.
  The naked body of the beloved son
  In his sire’s hand must die.

Painted upon the plaster walls of his humble abode, Saturn Devouring His Son is one of the works by Francisco Goya that falls within the classification of the “Black Paintings” of Goya. Goya, a Spanish artist who did not intend for these paintings to be viewed by the public (he received no commission for them) has been viewed by some as artistically insane, yet others believe he was simply expressing his own bitterness toward the general human condition.

The Legend
The painting depicts one of the Greek titans, Saturn, in a crazed state as he wildly consumes the body of one of his sons. According to legend, Saturn, who had overthrown his own father, learned of a prophecy in which it was foretold that one of his own sons would overthrow his power in similar fashion. Obsessed with preventing the prophecy from being fulfilled, Saturn devoured each of his children as soon as they were born. His wife successfully hid his last child, Jupiter, from Saturn and the prophecy was later fulfilled.

Details & Description
The very macabre presentation of the painting is, at best, disturbing. Goya’s limited use of bright colors as seen in the whites of his eyes, the whitening of his knuckles as he grasps the child’s body, and the brash paleness of the dead child’s backside with the redness of the blood are in stark contrast to the dark and gloomy colors that were otherwise used in the painting.

Goya depicts Saturn as a crazed titan/man that is eating child frantically, with the head, left arm, and part of the shoulder of the child obviously already devoured. It has been rumored that, at the time the painting was discovered, the portrayal of Saturn included a state of sexual arousal as he consumed the child. However, this has not been confirmed and, due to the deterioration that has occurred in the plaster, no such condition has since been visible.

It is also entirely possible that, if the arousal was present in the painting, it may have been deliberately altered before placing in public view, especially since Goya had never intended for this or any other paintings in the “Black” series to be viewed by the public.

In his later years, Goya went into complete exile and left the house that contained the murals to his grandson. The house eventually became the property of Emile d’Erianger in 1874, who commissioned the murals to be painstakingly transferred to canvas and preserved due to the fact that the walls of the house were deteriorating rapidly.

Speculation about the Source
Many theories abound as to what would cause Goya to paint such morbid pieces, and do so upon the walls of his home. A further irony is that Goya chose his dining area for painting the mural of Saturn Devouring His Son.

Some believe that Goya was so embittered by the political unrest of his beloved Spain that he felt the need to express his bitterness through his art. They assert that he was using symbolism, with Spain being the son and the oppressors being Saturn. Others believe the painting is a twisted representation of his relationship with his own sons.

Regardless of the motive behind it, Saturn Devouring His Son is a disturbing portrayal of conflict, fear, and the bloodlust that can accompany the lust for power.

The mural paintings that decorated the house known as “la Quinta del Sordo,” where Goya lived have come to be known as the Black Paintings, because he used so many dark pigments and blacks in them, and also because of their somber subject matter. The private and intimate character of that house allowed the artist to express himself with great liberty. He painted directly on the walls in what must have been mixed technique, as chemical analysis reveals the use of oils in these works. The Baron Émile d´Erlanger acquired “la Quinta” in 1873 and had the paintings transferred to canvas. The works suffered enormously in the process, losing a large amount of paint. Finally, the Baron donated these paintings to the State, and they were sent to the Prado Museum, where they have been on view since 1889. Saturn devouring one of his sons is one of the most expressive images from his Black Paintings. It occupied the wall across from Leocadia Zorrilla (P00754) on the ground floor of “la Quinta del Sordo.” This mythological god could be the personification of such a human feeling as the fear of losing one´s power. The mural paintings from “la Quinta del Sordo” (the Black Paintings), have been determinant in the modern-day consideration of this painter from Aragon. The German Expressionists and the Surrealist movement, as well as representative of other contemporary artistic movements, including literature and even cinema, have seen the origins of modern art in this series of compositions by an aged Goya, isolated in his own world and creating with absolute liberty.