Rubens, Goya and The Questionable Progress of Saturn

                                These great Cronos swallowed as each came forth from the womb
to his mother's knees with this intent, that no other of the proud
sons of Heaven should hold the kingly office amongst the deathless
gods.  For he learned from Earth and starry Heaven that he was
destined to be overcome by his own son, strong though he was,
through the contriving of great Zeus.
                        -Hesiod (11. 453- 491)

             All-devouring Time, Creator and Destroyer became a cruelly appropriate theme for both Peter Paul Rubens and Francisco Goya during the final years of creative life.  Similar in moment and composition, two depictions of Saturn (or Cronos) consuming his progeny can be found at El Museo del Prado in Spain.  Comparing the two reveals changes in science, politics, and conceptions of self that took place between Ruben’s completion of Saturn Devouring his Son in 1637 and Goya’s reinterpretation of the idea in 1823.

In the 1620’s most of Europe was embroiled in the 30 Years War.  The continent was split into Protestant against Catholic.  In addition to painting portraits of Europe’s Royalty, Peter Paul Rubens was serving as an ambassador between battling nations.  Credited with negotiating peace between Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain, Rubens was subsequently commissioned to paint canvases for both kings.  It was Philip’s request that Rubens fill the royal hunting lodge Torre de La Prado with depictions of Ovid’s Metamorphosis (Mainstone 39).

Among the La Prado series, Saturn Devouring his Son (1637) is a barometer of 17th Century thought.  In the age of Rubens, the Catholic Church was responding to the Protestant Reformation with a Counter-Reformation that staunchly reinforced traditional values and the wisdom of Rome. In support of the Vatican, Rubens emphatically transcribed the beliefs and values of the ancients.  His depiction of Saturn is characteristically classical in theme and composition.  The work focuses upon a well-proportioned human forms perfectly balanced within the frame.  In a letter to scholar Franciscus Junis, Rubens said he painted according to “all the examples, the opinions and the tenets promoting the dignity and splendor of the Art of Painting which the ancients enshrined in their literature and which have, to our very great benefit, survived to our day” (28).  To the beneift of the Catholic Church, Rubens mastered the classical artistic ideals imbibed them with the dramatic spectacle of the baroque.

Rubens painted Saturn with faith, dignity, and even beauty.  The horror scene of a man consuming his child is veiled in classical values. The sense of divine purpose overwhelms the capacities of reason. In the Rubens depiction, Saturn is a strong human figure set within the brooding clouds.  The strength and implied wisdom of Saturn make the action almost acceptable.  Divine influence over the scene is suggested by dramatic light and the presence of three stars that hover in the center of the canvas.    Rubens does not ask his audience to understand the cannibalism of Saturn, but he does request that they accept the ways of God whose purposes are beyond human comprehension. God exists, this painting asserts, even in the cannibalistic act.

Rubens was painting at the onset of tremendous social, religious, and political upheaval. The Scientific Revolution had begun analyzing, opposing, and reconstructing virtually all systems of knowledge.  Political Absolutism was on the Rise.  The Church had split and the Thirty-Years War was being fought between Protestants and Catholics across Europe.  In response to Scientific and Protestant criticism, The Catholic Church of the Seventeenth Century busily revived classical values and called upon ancient Mythology to validate Rome.

Dedicated to this cause, Rubens became on of the Vatican’s most influential painters.  His classical depiction of robust Saturn confidently devouring a young cherub, illustrates an unquestioning faith in Rome.  The bright colors and strong disposition of the painting are exuberantly self-confidant as opposed to the humble and contemplative paintings of 17th Century Protestant painters.  In technique and portrait Rubens approaches Saturn as a classical and somehow logical king. Despite the horror of the cannibalistic scene, Rubens fills his canvas with symmetry and light.  The principals of classical beauty are employed by Rubens to add a sense of decorum and godliness to mask the grotesque.

Nearly two-hundred years after Rubens, Francisco Goya translates the Saturn myth onto the walls of his country home, La Quinta Sordo (The Deaf Villa) in a series now referred to as "The Black Paintings."  As dark as the title implies, the paintings are brutal in execution.  Frenzied brushstrokes, emptiness, and overwhelming shadow dominate The Paintings.  The raw horror and the absolute ugliness of these images make it hard to believe that they were made by a man who, like Rubens, was an official painter to the Spanish Royal Court.

In 1818 the Prado opened in Madrid. It housed the Spanish Royal Collection established by Rubens’ patron King Philip IV.  It is probable that Goya, First Court Painter to Charles IV of Spain, had seen Ruben’s depiction of Saturn Devouring his Son at this newly established museum.  From the composition, it is obvious that Goya was consciously imitating Rubens.  In his imitation of art of the past, however, he ruptures his connection with it.

Raging eyes, clutching hands, and gruesome detail fight against the aggressive darkness of Goya’s Saturn Painting. Unlike Rubens who recognizes God everywhere, Goya seeks truth and only finds emptiness.  The religion, which imbibed Ruben’s Saturn with light and strength, has disappeared.  Goya’s Saturn is a madman driven insane by the vacancy of God.  Perhaps Goya, now aware his approaching death, found some companion in Rubens. 

Where Rubens found salvation, however, Goya witnessed only devastation.  Ruben’s classical, overly-heroic style offered Goya no relief.  Napoleon had left Spain in chaotic tatters. The French Revolution had become a dictatorship; liberation only brought more war to Spain.  The human hope was shattered.  Goya’s painting conveys the isolation profoundly felt at the dawn of modernism.

By 1821, the year Goya began his Saturn painting, Science had established rule over Europe.  The Scientific Method found no evidence of God and religion offered little salvation for continental thinkers.  All principles of mankind had been turned upside down; age old “truths” had been shattered.  In the wake of thinkers like Descartes and Schopenhauer, even the capacities of human comprehension were questionable.  Two hundred years of intellectual critique had demolished thousands of years of understanding. The devastation of God created an unfillable void.  Goya’s depiction of Saturn can be seen as a predecessor to Nietzsche’s famous decision, “God is dead” (105).

In his later years, Goya rejected principles of academic art and boldly aspired to capture images of the mind.  Responding to criticism concerning the “ugliness” of his paintings Goya said,

The artist has neither followed the examples of others, nor has been able to copy from nature.  And if imitating Nature is difficult as it is admirable when one succeeds in doing so, some esteem must be shown toward him who, holding aloof from her, has had to put before the eyes forms and attitudes that so far have existed only in the human mind, obscured and confused by lack of illustration, or excited by the unruliness of passions. (79)

Goya sought images as raw and unpredictable as life itself.  Of Rubens and his contemporaries, Goya may have agreed with Nietzsche when he said, “all of them are mere Schleiermacher-- veil-makers” (112).  Although dark, gruesome, and ugly, Goya paints the Saturn theme with the true depravity of a father compelled to eat his progeny.  Absurd in his disposition, looking through ignorant eyes driven mad by uncontrollable appetite, miserable King of the Golden Age is Saturn.  Painting in isolation on the walls of his final home, deaf and approaching a very real death, Goya unquestionably felt the pain, the insanity of Saturn.  Unrestricted by academic formula, plan of execution, Goya thrusts his audience in to the king's desparate attempt to maintain kingdom.

Time consumes all is produces, and the destiny of the past is to be overthrown by the future.  Neither Saturn, Goya, nor Rubens can withstand the changing ideas of history.  Where Rubens respects and emphatically promotes ideas from the classical past, Goya’s reinterpretation of Saturn Devouring his Son illustrates the demise of ancient values and the instability of Christian belief under newly developing, ever-questioning modern mentality.

Rubens, like Goya, would be dead within five years of depicting Ovid's theme.  Rubens passionate Catholicism finds reason, balance, and divine purpose within in the action of Saturn Devouring His Son.  His faith overwhelms the brutal subject with a pacifying spirituality.  During the painting of this canvas, Rubens was approaching death with the confidant hopefulness.  To Goya, Impending death offered no salvation. Instead, Goya's Saturn captures the internal darkness of the human imagination intellectually stripped of its confidence in Heaven. God is caught in a chaotic pool of modern madness.

In accordance with the developing Continental mentality, the depictions of Saturn devouring his Son shift radically.  Both Rubens and Goya were and are considered the greatest European painters of their day.  Their visions were accepted amongst their contemporaries as inspired and accurate transcribers of the human condition. In comparing these works on a single theme, it is possible to see the transformative upon the human psyche between the 17th and 19th Centuries.  From religious wars to the Scientific Revolution, from the Declaration of the Rights of Man to French Totalitarianism, the negative of every positive had become known. Like Hegel, Europe had found that every idea birthed opposition to itself.  In comparing the paintings by Rubens and Goya one finds a Europe whose empathic belief in God, truth, and tradition had nursed an Atheist sibling who was consumed by emptiness, chaos, and darkness.


Essay by Sharon Scott