The Interesting Origins Of Saturn Devouring His Sons

Francisco Goya, a famous Spanish artist created this masterpiece. It is one of the 14 works from the collection called the dark paintings or black paintings, which Goya directly painted on his house walls from 1819 and 1823. The paintings were discovered on the walls of his residence after his death.

Goya died on April 16th, 1828. After his death, the painting got transferred to canvas; it now lies in Museo del Prado.


The ‘Saturn devouring his son’ painting is an artwork inspired by the Greek myth. The dining area included a portrait of the Roman God Saturn, who feared that his sons would soon take over his rule, as predicted by the prophecy of Terra or Gaea. According to the Roman myth (which was inspired by the Greek legends), Saturn had also overthrown his father Uranus. Saturn, fearful of the prediction, ate them on the day of their births. 

Later Saturn was deceived by providing a stone wrapped in swaddling in place of his third son, Jupiter, who got concealed by his mother on the island of Crete.

Jupiter, as predicted by the prophecy, eventually dethroned his father.

Moreover, Francisco Goya bought the Quinta del Sordo( the Villa of the deaf) in 1819, named after the previous owner. At the time, Goya had survived two life-threatening illnesses at this point in his life; he had been left deaf after surviving a fever in 1792 and was anxious about his mortality.

He was also becoming increasingly enraged and anxious about the civil unrest in Spain.

Even though he initially decorated the house with more inspiring images, he painted over them all with the eerie portrayal that is now known as the Black Paintings. The Black collection was never commissioned and never intended for public display. The images illustrate Goya’s worsening mood and internal strife. Goya decorated the dining room with seven pieces, one of which is this terrifying portrait. Goya never named the paintings he put on his walls.

Others gave the names of his paintings after he died, with these being the two prime examples:

  •  Saturn Devouring One of His Sons 
  • Saturn Devouring His Children 

The Transfer

Quinta del sordo in 1900

Quinta del Sordo was passed down to Goya’s grandson, Mariano when he departed into self-imposed exile in France in 1823. After a series of ownership changes, the house was purchased by Belgian Baron Emile d’Erlanger in 1874. 

The murals on the walls of Quinta del Sordo were degrading terribly after 70 years, so the new owner of the home had them transferred to the canvas under the direction of Salvador Martnez Cubells, the chief art restorer of the Museo del Prado, to preserve them. After exhibiting them at the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris, d’Erlanger presented them to the Spanish government.

The paintings are the main works in Goya’s oeuvre, even though they were never supposed to be viewed by the public. Saturn was one of the artworks that had conditions to be displayed.


Saturn Devouring His Sons’ is the picture of a crazed psychopath trapped in the dark, unable to stop his deadly conduct. Saturn’s body, uncombed hair and beard, broad glare, and violent motions all point to a psychotic state of mind. He’s already eaten his child’s head, right arm, and a portion of the left arm, and he’s preparing to bite into the left arm again. His knuckles are white, and blood pours from the tops of his hands as he clutches the lifeless youngster. 

The titan had a slightly erect penis in the original painting, but this detail exists lost due to the mural’s deterioration over time or during the canvas transfer; the area surrounding his crotch is now hazy in the painting. Probably, it was overpainted before being displayed in public.


 The painting has different interpretations

  • The age gap between young and old is a source of contention.
  • As the devourer of all things, time is the mighty force in the universe.
  • God’s wrath
  • An analogy for the situation in Spain, where the fatherland has suffocated its children in wars and revolutions.

Moreover, many believed that the painting was about his son Xavier. He was the only one to enjoy life till his adulthood. Many say it possibly had something to do with Leocadia Weiss, his live-in housekeeper and potential mistress; the sex of the body devoured cannot be ascertained with confidence. If Goya created any annotations on the painting, they have not survived; he probably had little interest in explaining its importance because it was not for public exhibition.

Peter Pual’s painting

However, it may be that Francisco was impressed by Peter Paul Rubens work from 1636. Rubens’ picture, which is also at the Museo del Prado, is a brighter, more traditional depiction of the myth: his Saturn lacks the cannibalistic savagery depicted in Goya’s.

On the other hand, Goya’s vision depicts a father driven insane by the act of murdering his son. It might also be a titan enraged by the prospect of usurpation by one of his children. Furthermore, the son’s body in Goya’s painting is that of an adult, not the helpless infant shown by Rubens.

In 1796-7, Goya drew a chalk drawing of the same subject that was closer in tone to Rubens’ work. It featured a Saturn with a similar appearance to Rubens’, daintily nibbling on one of his sons’ legs while holding another like a leg of chicken, with none of the gore or craziness of the piece.

As is customary, many topics remain unresolved. To begin with, the half-eaten victim in Saturn’s hands does not have the rounded buttocks and thighs of a child or man. As a result, he’s eating one of his daughters. And she is not a child, but a mature young woman. So, what exactly does it all imply? Is this a symbolic painting, and who does Saturn represent?

Saturn may represent the authoritarian Spanish state.  It consumed the inhabitants, according to some art experts. Others see him as a metaphor for the French Revolution or even Napoleon. Goya did not leave any hints as to the answer.

Doubts About the Interpretation

Since the painter left no proper explanation or even a title for this painting, some critics and art enthusiasts suggest that the traditional interpretation is flawed from the beginning. They opine that the painting might not be about Saturn at all, or portray something that is completely different from the myth. This opinion ties in with the confusion about whether the body being devoured is that of a male or female.

Most portrayals of the myth actually show Saturn swallowing his offspring. When he swallowed the stone, he would later vomit the children back up. They would be alive and go on to become gods and goddesses in their own right; namely, Vesta, Ceres, Juno, Pluto, and Neptune.

Fred Licht, who is an esteemed Goya scholar, has especially doubted this painting’s traditional title. He states that the title could be misleading even in the case of Saturn’s depiction itself. For instance, he notes how the main subject of the painting (apparently Saturn) didn’t have he usual attributes of the god, like his hourglass or scythe. Moreover, the body of the figure being eaten is not that of an infant, and is not an anatomically correct human either. According to Licht, the title of this painting is in doubt much like the titles of all the other paintings in the same collection. In fact, he argues that even giving a tile to any of these paintings is going against their original intent, which was nothingness and chaos.   

Bottom Line

The image of Saturn devouring his son is significant, and many new painters draw to it for inspiration. People nowadays even use it to research the mental health of lonely, depressed people. 

The article had a detailed description of this historical painting. Do you like looking for more? How about checking famous paintings and the story behind them!

We also recommend reading the origin of the Last supper.