A series of gloomy paintings. Saturn devouring his children

Francisco Goya • Painting, 1823, 146×83 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Mythological scene
Style of art: Romanticism
Technique: Oil
Materials: Canvas
Date of creation: 1823
Size: 146×83 cm
Artwork in selections: 156 selections
Exhibitions history
June 6 − September 13, 2020
National Museum of the Prado, Prado Alley

Description of the artwork «A series of gloomy paintings. Saturn devouring his children»

"Saturn Devouring His Son" (alternative name "Saturn Devouring His Children") is the famous fresco by Francisco Goya, painted within 1820-1823. At the end of the 19th century, the artist Salvator Martinez Cubels transferred it to the canvas by order of the banker Emil d'Erlanger, who planned to show and, if lucky, to sell the masterpiece by the artist at the World Exhibition 1878, held in the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris. It was the decade of the Impressionists’ fame, when sunlight and concentrated air became fashionable. Thus it was no surprise that there was no one to buy the gloomy "Saturn", and in 1881, it was presented as a gift to the Prado Museum.

The history of the creation of "Saturn": why did Goya paint a fresco instead of a picture?

In 1819, Goya was 73 years old and still remained a court painter formally, when he retired and acquired a small villa in the suburbs of Madrid. Even we the previous owner lived there, the neighbours called the estate Quinta del Sordo, "the house of the deaf". Perhaps it was the name that attracted him: in 1792, after a mysterious illness (diagnoses were rather different, from apoplexy to complications of chronic syphilis), the artist began to experience intense headache and lost his hearing almost completely, so that the "house of the deaf" came to him as well as possible.

The decade before the purchase of Quinta del Sordo was unusually difficult for Spain and personally for Francisco. Spain was occupied by France, and he watched numerous executions, saw cooling corpses and smoking house ruins in the streets of Madrid. In 1812, he lost his wife Josefa, who lived with him for almost 40 years and buried at least ten children (different sources give different figures). Even earlier his beloved Cayetana de Alba died from poison when she was 40. In 1819, Fransisco suffered a new disease that put him hanging between life and death (the Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta (Minneapolis Institute of Art), who was his doctor and friend, proves it).

After his recovery from the disease, he decided to paint the walls of his "house of the deaf" with strange and dark visions to express his experience of the commotion he lived through. They were not meant for extraneous eyes of his contemporaries (and therefore wall frescoes proved to be preferable to paintings) and were to become something like a testament of an elderly artist to descendants.

The artist got ill with this idea. For a short time, he did a tremendous amount of work, including sketches for 14 huge paintings (some of them exceeded six square meters!) And he began to paint the walls after them. The imagery of the paintings resembled nightmares and hallucinations, even more so than Los Caprichos, the famous series of etchings by Goya. He did not give any names to his frescoes, but now we know them as Pinturas Negras - "Black Paintings" ("Gloomy Paintings"). They are painted in deep and gloomy colours. The walls of his house are covered with a thick mixture of black and blackish silver. Here and there, inclusions of bright and snow-white colours appear. Gloomy processions of pilgrims, people with distorted faces, frightening images of old age, infirmity, godlessness. And, perhaps, the most famous and eerie fresco among them is the "Saturn, devouring his children".


Most stories of Pinturas Negras are still unexplainable and mysterious to us, but the "Saturn" has its mythical prototype. The ancient Greek Kronos corresponds to Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The sons and daughters of Kronos, born by Rhea, were the Olympic gods Hera, Hestia, Demeter, Hades and Poseidon. Once Uranus predicted to Kronos that one of his sons or daughters would deprive him of power, and the frightened Kronos swallowed them one by one. The son of Kronos, Zeus, was born later. After growing up, he made his father vomit all those sons and daughters he swallowed – this was the end of Kronos’s power.

Goya and Rubens: whose Saturn is more gruesome?

The Goya's painting is sometimes compared to the painting by Rubens "Saturn", which depicts the same story and is also presented in the Prado Museum. However, the Roman god by Rubens with its harmonic anatomy and balanced colours looks very “normal” as opposed to the distraught monster by Goya! The body of the Goya’s hero is broken, his proportions are weird, he does not fit in the space of the painting, and his eyes are full of some extreme, chthonic horror caused by his deed. And, most interestingly, he does not swallow the whole son, as it is described in the myth, but devours his bleeding body in parts. So, perhaps, the artist does not follow the myth, but displays some kind of individual nightmare, creates his own myth.

"Saturn Devouring His Son” by Francisco Goya: origins and secret meanings

You can find not only historical, but also psychic background in every nightmare, this is why psychiatrists and psychoanalysts like examining the Spanish artist.

Anton Neumayr, author of the book "Artists in the Mirror of Medicine", is looking for possible keys to the "Saturn" in the genealogy of the Goya clan. The artist’s ancestors belonged to the pre-Indo-European Basques, whose stories and legends were primarily built on themes of cruel murders, human sacrifices and cannibalism. In their myths, the menacing spirits of nature plunge man into an atmosphere of primitive horror. "Surely he, like Shakespeare, believed in supernatural forces," the researcher believes, which means that the bloodthirsty Saturn, who devoured its own creations, could personify the elemental cruelty of the world order.

Supporters of the historical approach to his creativity draw an analogy between the "Saturn Devouring His Son" and Spain of the early 19th century, which shamelessly threw her children into the jaws of the civil war, burning them on fires of the Inquisition and sacrificing them to imaginary national grandeur.

Dr. Ferenc Reitmann believes that the terrible visions of Goya are manifestations of his psychopathological state, his mental illness, aggravated (but not generated!) with historical reality. "In the horrific images of the civil war," Reitmann spells out the Neumayr’s idea, "The artist showed measureless inhuman cruelty. Embarrassed and upset by terrible crimes, he went even further, as he began to dishonour patriots as well, drawing their disgusting dead bodies. He depicted mutilated, torn to pieces limbs and odious scenes in the same way as psychiatric patients do. The frescoes in Quinta del Sordo (where Saturn devours his children and the giant gnaws bitten hands) express it even more clearly. "

Spanish physicians Fernández and Seva refer to the alleged mental illness of Goya as an affective psychosis, Manuel Pareo speaks of depressive dysthymia, Neumayr tends to diagnose schizophrenia and suggests the gradual poisoning of the Goya’s body with lead, which is the part of paints, and this affected the artist's brain activity and caused hallucinatory visions. In this situation, art critics can only be ascertained: indeed, the painting did not know such frenzied disharmony before Goya. He was the first in European art to make viewer not spectators of his painting, but full partners in an infernal feast and monstrous crimes.

Author: Anna Vcherashniaya