(Translation by Elizabeth Gamble Miller)
This painting, that causes vertigo just from the aversion to even look at it, is one of the fourteen murals known as “dark paintings” with which Francisco Goya decorated the living and dining rooms at Quinta del Sordo, (Deaf Man’s Ranch) a place he acquired on the banks of the Manzanares River in 1819. Seventy years later proposing to preserve them for posterity, he arranged to have them removed and placed on canvass.
Saturno devorando a un hijo (Saturn Devouring a Son), which is one of the six that decorated the dining room, became one of the most disturbing paintings of the early XIX century, because it conveys masterfully and with a sense of the dramatic, the allegory of Time, represented by the mythological god Cronos –identified by the Romans as Saturn–, who, fearful of being dethroned by his descendents, devoured the children borne to his wife Era, whose only function, besides satisfying the libidinous desires of an all-powerful being, was to produce one child after another.
Until I confronted this painting, with a vague knowledge that anthropophagi was a chapter only dealt with in myths and annals of criminal history, although I recognized that the metaphor of cannibalism has been present in the life of individuals since the dawn of history, I still didn’t expect the pictorial representation of a father devouring his son to hit the mark so directly and impact civilization's most elemental moral and ethical human values.
When a mother says to her child: “I’m going to eat you up,” she is only expressing her affection; it's like saying lovers devour each other with kisses. Nevertheless, these daily expressions, transmitted mouth to mouth, come close to a pale reflection of Sigmund Freud's thought: the child, in the oral stage sucks and bites the maternal breast until it bleeds, a manifestation that the child, at least during the symbiotic period, incorporates the loved object by devouring it.
Anthropophagi, moreover, isn’t foreign to literature; take for example, Gulliver’s Travels, the satirical work of fantasy by Jonathan Swift. His principle character is almost devoured in the country of the giants. At the same time, in an essay, this Irish writer suggests a political solution: in order to produce a healthy English economy, sell the children of the poor –the more tender the better– to replenish the tables of the rich.
According to the Conquistadores of the so-called New World, we know that in some pre-Columbian civilizations the heart of a sacrificed slave was eaten in order to honor their gods. In like manner in certain cultures, the flesh and blood of the loved ones is eaten and drunk symbolically, a phenomenon that in the form of a Eucharist, is present in Catholicism, with the bread and wine symbolizing the body of Christ.
Cannibalism, which in some measure appeals to our primitive instincts, is part of our collective memory as a way of surviving. It isn't accidental that some explorers of the most remote areas of the planet, driven by hunger and inclement weather, had to eat the cadaver of a member of their expedition in their effort to live.
The most recent well-known act of cannibalism, an event that touched everyone in 1972, occurred when a Uruguayan plane in route to Chile with 45 passengers on board, crashed into a snow-covered peak of the Andes mountains, where the desperate survivors, in the absence of food and physically exhausted, were forced for days to eat the cadavers of their companions.
only comparable to the repugnant cannibalism practiced in the most primitive epoch of human development. That being so, to hear from the mouth of members of a Satanic cult a horrifying tale is a blow to reason; only such a one could come up with the idea of cutting a person's body into six pieces: head, trunk, arms, pelvis, thighs, legs, including, of course, hands and feet. I also know that there are those who cut the person into eight pieces, since they like to take out the knees, the knee cap ball, being covered with the only portion of red flesh that the human being has (Andrés Calcedo).
Just imagining that a person is capable of eating another person whole, just like that, in small bites, as if it were a carved chicken, requires a mental effort beyond any sentiments or perverse fantasy. For that very reason, and without considering any other angles, I wonder what Goya could have been thinking and feeling at the moment he conceived of this painting that, for good measure, he placed in none other than his dining room, where he would sit down every god-forsaken day to savor delicious dishes of culinary art.
If the mythology concerning the god Cronos inspired Goya, as it did Rubens, who painted this same idea in 1600, then it is natural to ask: Who was that damned god that was eating his children? Since the answer is not easy or concise, I will find a way to explain it little by little.
Cronos, according to Greek mythology the god of Time, the youngest of the Titans, was born son of Gea (the Earth) and Uranus (the Sky), from whom later he would wrest the Government of the Universe. He held in one hand the curved scythe on the end of a long pole with a handle, as a symbol of death, and in the other a sand clock to measure time.
His misfortune began the day he killed, then castrated his father and threw the genitals into the water. That atrocious patricide, which parodies the famous tragedy of Oedipus, led him to make himself the only master and lord of the Universe, which he governed at the side of his sister Rea, whom he married in order to populate the world. But as his life was already marked by destiny, the oracles announced that, just the way that he defeated and destroyed his father, he would be dethroned some day by one of his children. Cronos did nothing but smirk and mutter to himself: I will mock destiny. If I don't let them live, no one will take away from me the desire to be the eternal master of the Universe.
So, fearful of his children taking his power, he began to devour them as soon as each was born. When Zeus was born, his mother hid him in a cave in Crete and, instead of the boy, she handed Cronos a stone simulating a newborn. So, the only one who was saved from the butchery was Zeus, who was reared by the nymphs until he reached adulthood. At the height of his manhood and having become a daring, skillful warrior, he dethroned his father and declared himself the supreme god of Olympus. The promise of destiny had been fulfilled: Cronos was killed by his son Zeus.
If we look back at this painting, we observe that
Goya made an effort to rescue the drama of the mythology in question,
since Cronos (Saturn), painted in full action and in his most natural
state, looks more like a madman than someone sane, with his humped
shoulders from the weight of the years, tousled hair and beard, naked
body, and particularly expressive angry eyes and eyebrows. But something
more, this anthropophagi god, who was eating his children like T'anta
wawas children made of dough, became one of the key figures of Greek
mythology and one of the sources of inspiration for poets and painters
of all time.
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