Thoughts On: Saturn Devouring His Son - Whole Decimation


Saturn Devouring His Son - Whole Decimation

Thoughts On: Saturn Devouring His Son (1819-23)

There are many different kinds of horror presented by painters through drama, style, subject matter and more. I have been recently struck by a few different examples of what you may call horrifying paintings, and would like to present and make an attempt at analysing one today.

Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son is likely one of the most iconically horrifying paintings. Much of this has to do with the context in which Goya constructed this; he painted this directly onto a wall in his home along with 13 other so-called 'dark paintings'. This was then never meant to be publicly exhibited and so is thought to be a deeply personal work, either expressing or capturing the inner-workings of a very clearly dark and engrossed mind. Inspired by Greek mythology, this sees Cronus (otherwise called Saturn) eating one of his children, possessed by the prophecy that one of them would one day overthrow and succeed him, taking his position as the central god, king of kings, a position that Cronus secured having castrated his own father.

This myth could be read as symbolic with the knowledge that Cronus is said to have swallowed his children (Poseidon, Hades, Hera, etc.) whole. Cronus devouring his children whole in such a respect may be symbolic of an ambiguous repression and oppression of sorts; him sucking the life out of their childhood, raising them with fear and tyranny, ensuring that they may not develop. Becoming a self-fulfilling prophet, Cronus only ever welcomes overthrow by swallowing his children whole as Zeus, who was saved from being devoured by his mother, eventually frees his brothers and sisters from their father's stomach before waging war against and then eventually overthrowing him. Let it be emphasised, however, that Zeus only freed his brothers and sisters because they were swallowed whole; the symbolic implication being that the father could only suppress, never truly devour his children, tear them to pieces so they could never rise up against him. The prophecy Cronus is then unable to understand or reverse is concentrated on the strength of the infant gods and their ability to transcend his tyranny.

Goya's painting constructs a new narrative. Instead of Cronus repressing his children, imprisoning them within his stomach, he is shown to be tearing them apart and gorging on limbs, his fingers crushing and penetrating flesh and bone, lifeless and limp as they may be.

Cronus does this without godly expression; there is no power in this image, no righteousness, no romance, no moral conviction or real violence. This is a sad and depraved act of animalistic fervour.

It seems that Cronus is possessed by consumption, mindless until this one very moment in which he sees someone flash a light his way. Alas, having been found, Cronus is not surprised, he only seems to be able to show recognition, to make eye contact with someone out of frame, and he has not stopped consuming; his grip on the body makes this all too clear.

The story Goya is telling in this painting is far less optimistic than even the Greek myth. There is no chance for the son here to be reborn, to sprout out of his father's mouth, fully formed and developed, when he is made to vomit. If such was to occur in Goya's story, if Cronus was poisoned and made to evacuate the contents of his stomach, all that would be left of the gods would be decomposing body parts - and what an image of utter failure this would be, a mother receiving her children back only in parts, the father's brutality having reversed prophecy successfully. And even if Cronus is made to spit out his devoured children's dismembered and ground body parts, included would be Zeus, for Rhea, his mother, saved him from his father by giving up a rock that was swallowed whole in his place. In biting into the rock as he does this baby boy, which may as well be Zeus for all we know, Cronus would have surely discovered the deception and eaten the boy.

With a commitment to brutality, Goya is ultimately taking a sense of a fool's redemption from away Cronus that he is granted in the Greek myth. In varying accounts of this myth, when Cronus loses the war against his children, he is either sent to Tartarus and/or made a king of sorts (some say of Elysium). Because this is a rather difficult story to break down, we shall simply suggest here that Cronus is seen as a fool for attempting to decide his own fate, but is shown mercy in only being imprisoned, or even greater mercy in being made a ruler of a lesser realm (lesser than the realm of the gods at Olympus). What may then be forgiven in Cronus (within the confines of the Greek myth) is his decision to suppress instead of devour, to swallow whole instead of tear apart, his children. After all, there is mercy and foolhardiness in a god only swallowing his children for he does not actively obliterate them and decimate all chance of repudiation. Nonetheless, Goya reverses this to the effect of some ungodly evil and cunning; Cronus shows no sympathy, no mercy, no foolhardiness: he rips his children limb from limb so they may never avenge themselves and fulfil the prophecy of their ascension. However, as implied, there is a great fall depicted in this: Cronus becomes a demonic animal. Furthermore, Cronus is depicted as falling apart. We see this in a closer look at the painting:

We see here how Goya's impression of horror and animalistic possession breaks down into almost pitiable disarray. With his impressionism, Goya gives a very flat face to Cronus - we see this in the eye and eyebrow region especially. Without depth, just a few rakes of black paint and blotches of black and white, Cronus is not given real character; certainly not a soul.

Notice here how decrepit and deformed Cronus is, how he melts into earthy darkness, on his knees and shameless.

Take greater care to notice the anatomical anomaly. Cronus is shown to either have no right foot, or a stub and two knees. Upon close analysis, this seem arachnid and insect-like, possibly even serpentine (and it is common in Greek mythology for Titans to have serpents for feet). However...

... in the greater context, this anomaly seemingly emphasises the manner in which Cronus is not a solid form and is being devoured himself by decay and darkness. Such is truly emphasised on the edge of the frame:

It is fascinating how Cronus is being swept off of frame, all marking homogenising into a grey-brown mesh and wiping to the side when reaching the extremity of the canvas. This is particularly true around Cronus' crotch/abdomen;

Again, Goyer allows for anomaly, deformity and disarray. And from this chaos in the detail emerges one greater effect, that being Cronus' body's submission to darkness and wind, to motion and entropy.

We now see him moving out of frame slightly, not off his own accord but seemingly being pulled or sucked by a force maybe more malevolent that he. And all this is in juxtaposition to the entirely submissive and vertically aligned frame of the decapitated boy. Whilst the boy remains, the father then decays and recedes; he becomes the animal whilst the boy falls to bits with savage rigidity and malleability.

What this adds to the haunting narrative Goya contrives with his mutation of Greek myth is the idea of a ruined childhood that moves past a Freudian melodrama. In the Greek myth, the father devouring his son exudes something akin to a father-son Oedipal complex; the father becoming a hateful mother and consuming the soul of a child. There is, however, a reversal in the, to turn to Jung, individuation of the children being represented by not only the deception of the father, but their war and merciful triumph over him. Goya destroys this melodrama, refusing to depict a symbolic psychological oppression in childhood that is overcome in adulthood in place of a true ravaging that a child never recovers from. This, at the hands of a greedy king, possessed by his own very literal power, imbibes unspeakable horror into this tragedy. And so, I believe, Goya depicts one of the greatest evils, both literally and symbolically; herein is the destruction of the innocent future and the present potential for power prophesised to pass; herein is a father eating his son, a father decimating childhood, becoming the animal his greed and weakness of character yearn for him to be.

What Goya ultimately seems to be depicting above all is the collapse of self, how a once complete king, who was to become more complete in his formation of family, atrophies in his greed and commitment to be a singular power in his life. In sacrificing his children to his possession, Cronus knows not that he pulls himself apart. Such a personal tragedy is resolved in the Greek myth through the mercy of Cronus' children. Cold-hearted and unforgiving, Goya shows no mercy, and so Cronus is allowed to destroy himself, to collapse in on his possession and evil, swept away by the ungodly and dangerous deception of fate.

P.S. Click here for a minor revision of this post.

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