About the author:
I am currently in my final semester in the Arts and Culture profile of the ALC program. I have an immense interest for the arts, with no particular preference for any time period, and so thankfully I was given the opportunity to submit a detailed analysis of one my personal favorite artworks by Francisco Goya. I intend to further pursue my interests in art history at Concordia following my graduation.
The Conduit of Monstrosity: A View of Saturn’s Devolution from God to Monster
By Meredith Gauthier
For Scary Monsters with Prof. Shalon Noble
What is a monster, if not the culmination of all that is ungodly in this world? What becomes of a god if they partake in monstrous acts? The anglicized word is derived from the Italian verb “mostrare”, which means to show. ”[Monsters] show, signify and proclaim the future. [Things we call monsters are] all those things which happen out of the usual order that (…) occur for whatever cause.” (Varchi qtd. In Lazzarini 422) This aspect of prophecy linked to monstrosity is what leads me to the subject of this essay: Francisco Goya’s take on the myth of Saturn, ever so terribly imagined in Saturn Devouring his Child (1819-1823). The shortened version of the legend speaks of how the Greek Titan Cronus (or Saturn in Romanised terms), devours each of his children following their birth, fearing usurpation. Compared to other interpretations of the myth, Goya’s work stands out as the purest form of bestial cruelty and madness, where any form of reason cannot justify the act being performed by this supposed god. In other words, Goya’s structuring of Saturn’s body establishes Saturn’s transition from god to monster.
When we first set eyes on the painting, they are drawn at the first sight of color which, to our dismay, comes from the flushed-out bloodied corpse clutched in Saturn’s iron grip. Saturn’s hands themselves are an important element of the painting, as it is insinuated that the blood comes mostly from the way he squeezes it. It’s as if he believes a limbless stump would be able to run away from his grasp. When compared to the other aspects of Saturn’s body, the boning on the hand is incredibly detailed, showing an excessive use of force that gods usually employ in situations such as these. That being said, one could perceive Saturn’s hands as having a double meaning, one of power and fear all at once. In a primal context, he could be seen as a frightened animal, lashing out in any way to protect himself from a non-existent threat. According to Popczyk, “the biological manifestation of fear constitutes the ‘wisdom’ of nature.” In this context, the quotation marks around ‘wisdom’ are to be remarked, as it is an “evolutionary mechanism” made to assist us animals in overcoming life or death situations in nature (2). There is no tact, no contemplation nor reasoning in Saturn’s behavior, there is simply a deterioration to base instincts. The method in which he reverts to such excessive, senseless force is in no way befitting of a god.
Our eyes then move to the face, nondescript and painted in quite a pedestrian manner. The face itself is flushed in a warmer tone, the whites in his eyes a stark contrast to the monotonous tones of his body. They look startled, frenzied, and unfocused. They don’t seem focused on the child’s body at all. Rather, the way in which Goya painted Saturn’s pupils seem more fixated on the audience witnessing this horrid act. This inclusion of the viewer’s presence among the madness is the culmination of what Popczyk defines as “aesthetic fear.” It is described as an inert fascination for the morbid aspects of human existence, as it “leads to a pleasure derived from the experience of the sublime, and is followed by a reflection tinged with pathos and deference” (341). Saturn’s facial expression, the way the eyebrows knit upwards, insinuates displeasure in the act he is committing. And yet, he still gives in to the primal murderous instinct, fearing his power will be usurped by one of his children. “The sacrificial act [appears] at times as a sacred obligation to be neglected at great peril, at other times as a sort of criminal activity entailing perils of equal gravity” (Girard 1). This passage reflects Saturn’s possible mindset when faced with the idea of usurpation. Since this fear was prophesised to him, he sees no other option but to attempt to sever the strings of fate by eating his own children, to no avail. The fear is conveyed through Goya‘s use of “flat, broad brushstrokes and thick impasto [that is seen] throughout the composition; [as] the paint appears to have been quickly applied” (theartsory.com). The way Goya painted Saturn’s greyish locks to fall around his face, in a haggard and deranged manner, once again leads us away from the idea that this creature shares any relation to the Greek pantheon. To paraphrase Doctor Pretorius in James Whale’s adaptation of the Bride of Frankenstein: I propose that Goya’s work actively breaks these borders set between “gods and monsters.”
Once we finish registering Saturn’s vile visage in our minds, what is left to observe leaves no room to breathe. His body seems to have taken on monstrous proportions, turning him into a Carpenter-like creature of his own creation. Susan Sontag actually made a few observations on Goya’s works, mostly regarding his paintings that depict the horrors of war. Her commentary can be applied to his entire body of work, as these painful subjects are seen as a primary source of inspiration for Saturn Devouring his Child, which is also fraught with profound sorrow and violence. Sontag comments on Goya’s habit of leaving the background as a supporting element to the focus of the painting, which in this case is Saturn: “The landscape is an atmosphere, a darkness, barely sketched in. [It is] not [meant to be] a spectacle. [The subject] stands independently of the others” (36). This is one of the many twisted ways Goya shows how far Saturn has gone from his once grand presence as a Titan. We see him kneeling in submission, hunched down, symbolising his weakness of will. It’s almost as if he’s a beggar, prostrate on the ground, made for everyone to see the pitiful monster that he’s become. Not to mention the fact that there is evidence that the painting once included an image of Saturn’s partially erect phallus, which is repulsive, to say the least.
Nearing the end of his life, Goya truly fell prey to the madness he once held under control, and the same gruesome fate can be seen in Saturn. Every aspect of the Titan’s figure conveys a complete and utter loss of will and reason. He remains an irredeemable creature, stooping to the lowest forms of monstrosity through his use of unnecessary force, and through his haggard and deranged appearance. Perhaps this is why Goya was able to convey such sorrow and pain onto his dining room wall, as an ever-present reminder of the kingdom he lost to his own inhibitions.
Eskine, Kendall J., et al. “Stirring Images: Fear, Not Happiness or Arousal, Makes Art More Sublime.” Emotion, vol. 12, no. 5, Oct. 2012, pp. 1071–1074. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/a0027200.
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977. dc153.dawsoncollege.qc.ca:2052/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01165a&AN=dawson.15663&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Goya, Francisco. “Saturn Devouring His Son.” Saturn Devouring His Son, Wikipedia, 22 Oct. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saturn_Devouring_His_Son.
Lazzarini, Elena. “Wonderful Creatures: Early Modern Perceptions of Deformed Bodies.” Oxford Art Journal, vol. 34, no. 3, 2011, p. 415. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1093/oxartj/kcr038.
Palmer, Allison Lee. Historical Dictionary of Romantic Art and Architecture. Scarecrow Press, 2011. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=368201&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Popczyk, Maria. “Fear and Anxiety in the Dimensions of Art.” Argument: Biannual Philosophical Journal, no. 2, 2012, p. 333. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsdoj&AN=edsdoj.2d2730fc3041434e92beedcf6743f7c5&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat01165a&AN=dawson.59837&site=eds-live&scope=site.
The Bride of Frankenstein, Directed by James Whale, Performance by Ernest Thesiger, Universal Pictures, 20 April 1935.