The Madness within Goya: Making Sense of Saturn Devouring his Son

Goya’s painting ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’ is one of the most fascinating works of visual art of all time. Depicting a monstrous deity devouring his own child, the painting has puzzled art critics and historians for decades, as to the inspiration behind it, the conception that Goya wanted to portray, and the horror that its creation and final form inspires. This creative writing piece tries to explore these three through a fictitious series of journal entries by Goya, bringing together his relationship with his son, the prevalent political conditions in Spain and Goya’s own subjectivity.

Saturn Devouring his Son

19th April, 1820

Step after step, we try controlling our fate

When we finally start living, it’s become too late

It is well past midnight, and I am up. Again. Heart pounding, sweat pouring, hands trembling. The same nightmare. I no longer remember the last sweet, uninterrupted sleep that I’ve had, undisturbed by these demons from my past.

And yet, have I not slumbered through my entire life, sleepwalking through grandeur and glory, only to find out that it was all an illusion? Blinded by the magnificence of royalty and deafened by the honeyed words of nobility, I saw a paradise where purgatory festered beneath the very first layer.

I feel the spectre of a terrible thought looming inside me. I feel its darkness growing, devouring me from within. But that is for another day. For now, I will go back to sleep, and pray that the cold, blank eyes do not come back to haunt my dreams again.

1st March, 1820

Tortured insanity, a smothering hell

I try to escape, but to no avail

The nightmares have become more frequent. More vivid. I see Javier’s face. Faces of dead men. I barely sleep anymore. The eyes stare out at me even from the walls of Quinta del Sordo, cold, blank, yet accusatory, meaningful.

I cannot stand their stare. Their coldness burns my soul, their accusation makes me want to rip it apart. I want to tear down these walls, smash those eyes from their sockets.

5th March, 1820

Innocent victims of merciless crimes

Fall prey to some madmen’s impulsive designs

I didn’t sleep all night yesterday. One moment I felt feverish and burning, the next, I was chilled to the bone. I asked Sergio — one of the servants — to feel my temperature. Nothing, he mouthed to me.

Sometimes, when I go through you, diary, I see things I don’t remember thinking, or having written. Who wrote these couplets at the beginning of the last few entries?

Am I going mad?

I went out for a walk, pondering this, when I saw a scene from afar. The market was relatively empty at the time, and at a watermelon stall, two watermelons lay split on the ground. A man was beating a child, presumably his son, violently, ferociously, in front of that stall. The man’s brown skin and short, black hairs glistened with sweat as he kept coming at his son, whose clothes had gone to tatters amidst the blows. Onlookers watched on, impassive, as the violence escalated. The son suddenly caught hold of the father’s leg, pulled, and the father fell to the ground. The son ran away from the scene while the father shook his fist, and I’m assuming, swore and cursed at the son.

What is it that makes fathers such nightmares for their sons?

Is it love? Is it wanting too much for them, wanting to give them too much, that translates into the violence which ultimately ruins their lives? I hoped too much for Javier, and too much from him. I appealed to the King to grant him money for his traveling, so that he could develop himself as a painter, without ever asking him if he even wanted to go, or to paint. I tried to immortalize him in a painting, and instead ended up capturing the essence of a vain, high-headed human, and now, that is what the world thinks him to be. And he hated me for my constant efforts to push him despite his clear lack of interest in painting, for capturing his soul with my painter’s sight in his portrait. But that is not all. Blind and oblivious as I was, I gifted him my paintings. And now, they stand like constant reminders to him, of the talent that he does not possess. All my life, I’ve given him poisoned gifts that have destroyed his individuality, and tried to mould him to my liking. Now, I understand the cold, soul-burning look in his eyes when I gifted him the paintings. Was it love that wrapped itself around him, warm and comforting at first, then slowly squeezing him, and in the end entirely devouring him?

What is it that makes fathers such nightmares for their sons?

Is it pride, power, authority, wanting to dominate? As Court Painter, I blinded myself to the poisoning of Spain by her own father, Ferdinand. I did not see the hell my country had become for everyone but the select few. And then, the Father led his sons into a war for glory. Did thousands die just for his pride? Corpses piled up, a royal feast of the royal sons for the dirty crows who pecked away at someone’s eyes, someone’s innards.. an image conjured straight from the depths of hell. But their eyes.. their blank stares seemed to be directed at me, accusing me, deriding me. Was it the Father’s will to dominate, his pursuit of glory, which came for his children as death, devouring them into nothingness?

What is it that makes fathers such nightmares for their sons?

Not love, not pride.. is it just pure indifference? Do the fathers simply step away after bringing their sons into the world, uncaring, unrepentant? I shudder at the very thought of this answer. But how else do I explain the sadness, the misery that I see around me? Why else would God, Father of all mankind, sit back and allow the rich to exploit the poor, allow us to wage wars, allow man to kill man? Perfectly honest men deemed as heretics and burnt at the stake. Dead bodies forming a mountain of desecrated flesh. His own son, crucified for the sins of all humanity! He doesn’t care! All he does is bring you into the world, then take you out of it! God is Saturn.. devouring all that stand in his way, including his own child, with a cold, purposeful look on his face!

Ruben’s Saturn is all the Fathers of the world.. proud, indomitable, indifferent, even in their love. Like me, like Ferdinand, He devours his own children, and their blood, and their ravaged lives, are on His hands.

But is that the true nature of the Fathers? Are they truly that proud, that ferocious, or have they simply been painted that way? Isn’t love a part of the mixture of emotions they feel towards their sons? Are they not also swallowing their own humanity, their Fatherhood, along with their sons? These are questions I have been unable to answer.

But today is not the day to do that. It is difficult to focus, even to write. I am tired, exhausted. It is becoming harder and harder to hold on to this reality, and more often than not these days, I am lost in a world of my own: a world of witches, goblins and bats. A world of monsters.

7th March, 1820

Spinning round and round

Looking outward, reaching in

Scream without a sound

Leaning over, crawling up

Stumbling all around

Losing my place only to

Find I’ve come full circle

These eyes.. they are growing larger, coming out of all the walls now. They stare at me all the time, harassing me, condemning me, accusing me, demanding justice. Confess!, the eyes seem to silently scream out at me. I can no longer smell the gardens and the mountain air from the landscapes I painted on these walls. The air is now heavy, putrid, smelling of sorrow and death. The eyes shall have the confession they desire, painted on top of them to shut them out once and for all.

Again, I go back to the same question: what is the true nature of the Fathers?

Wretched, depraved old souls, spiteful in their hollow pride, destructive in their delusion of glory, terrible in their love. All the Fathers are Saturn. And Saturn is you, Francisco. You are all the Fathers. Broken, beaten by life, cringing away from the world to escape into your personal darkness, yet still continuing to ruin your son, to devour him, just like the King, just like the real Saturn. The true nature of the King and of Saturn is your own true nature. They are reflections of you, just as you are a reflection of them. God gives birth to man, who goes on to become a Father, destroys his son with his love, or his pride, or his indifference, and again turns into Saturn, the God, completing the circle of life. The Fathers are a perfect sphere, colliding with the glass fate of the sons, shattering it into a thousand pieces. The true face of Fathers is the face of Saturn, stripped of all its fierceness, dignity and humanity.

The painting will be that of Saturn, captured in the terrible act of devouring his son.

Ruben’s Saturn commits his sin in his heavenly abode, astride the clouds, stars gleaming behind him, glorious to behold! Yet in reality, the God cowers in his own personal hell, surrounded by a darkness that is part of him, just like you, Francisco, hide behind the walls of your Quinta del Sordo, surrounded by a silence that is a part of you.

It will have a black background; a dirty black background, not a pristine black one.

Ruben’s Saturn holds a staff, diving into his son’s chest hungrily to eat him, indifferent to the boy’s cries. His grip is firm and purposeful. He looks every inch a King, a God, with his flowing white hair and beard and tall, well-built body. The real Saturn is more like you, Francisco. Gaunt, disheveled, hair sticking out like a madman. His hands clutch the son; a scene of desperate love, as his nails dig into the child’s back, yet the act is violent, with the violence borne out of the love. His body is disproportionate, weak, more like a beggar’s than a King’s. His knees bend, not in the furore of the act, but under the weight of all of his sins which he carries on his back, breaking his pride. Saturn is not proud, but vulnerable.. as he devours his own humanity along with his son.

Saturn is bent at the knees, his arms and legs abnormally long, his hands digging into his son’s back as he clutches the boy feverishly. His hair and beard are messy, as though uncombed for years on end. He looks weak, almost unable to stand on his own feet.

His eyes and his look..

His eyes are cold, sinister, his look purposeful. They do not betray any emotion at the horrific act he is committing. His are the eyes haunting my nightmares, the eyes of Javier, the eyes of the dead men, the eyes staring out at me from these walls, tormenting me. The eyes I want to cover up.

Maddened by the blood on his hands, the heinousness of his act, Saturn, signifying all Fathers, will have a crazed look. Unable to break out of the circle of life, he sins again and again, his violence towards his child mingling with his love, and that will be visible in the eyes.

The look in his eyes is the true nature of the Fathers, the Kings and the Gods. They have eaten away at themselves, along with their sons. Their sins have turned them hollow and insane.

15th March, 1820

I have been in bed for the last week. The weakness has gradually been subsiding. I have been sleeping, resting, pondering over what I created, and what it signifies. In a way, I have come full circle as well. I started out painting what I loved to paint, then reached a position where I had to paint what others loved, and now, I have come back to painting what I want. I haven’t washed off my sins, but I have confessed them.

I have been thinking about Javier a lot ever since the day I painted. The confession also needs to go out to him, for it is his grace that will give my soul the peace it craves. Maybe I will write a letter to him. Maybe written words will cross the chasm between us, saying what remained unsaid all those years ago.

Maybe this will end in happiness. But I am too tired to write that letter now. I shall take some rest, and work on it as soon as I am feeling a little bit stronger.

30th March, 1820

This story ends where it began…

It is well past midnight, and I am up. Yet again…