This disconcerting painting is one of the
fourteen known as the "black paintings" with which Goya
decorated the dining and sitting rooms of his home, called the
"Quinta del Sordo", which he bought in 1819 on the banks
of Madrid's Manzanares River. Due to their deteriorated condition
seventy years after they were painted, the owner decided to have them taken down and put on canvas.
A few years later he donated them
to the Spanish state. Saturn Devouring One of his Sons was one of
the six works decorating the dining room. It depicts a scene from
mythology - the god Saturn, or Cronus - that acts as an allegorical
illusion to the artist's own day. The god devoured Cybele and his
children, as time devours all that it creates: he feared that one
would rise up and destroy him.
Cannibalism is a favourite
subject of black humour. After about 1800, almost all Goya's images
of food or of eating were revolting.
Marina Warner demonstrates
that bogeymen habitually threaten children, carry them off, and may kill
and eat them. Most parents have gone down on all fours, pretended to be
a lion, and threatened their three-year-old with, 'I'll catch you and
eat you.' We all want to incorporate those we love. But child murder
and cannibalism have also been serious accusations, levelled against
both witches and Jews. Witches were accused of manufacturing an
ointment made from the flesh of slaughtered infants, which, when applied
to their bodies, enabled them to fly and foregather at their sabbats.
Jews were accused of ritually murdering Christian children in order to
use their blood for the making of unleavened bread.
This aptly illustrates the
fact that there is a mythological substratum to human experience in
which horrific, paranoid fantasies lurk. Jung called this region 'the
collective unconscious'. The activation of such fantasies is not
confined to the medieval past. Nazi propaganda terrifyingly persuaded
large numbers of Germans that Jews were the embodiment of evil.
Accusations of murder and cannibalism were widely credited. And murder
and cannibalism are occasionally acted out in reality. Jeffrey Dahmer,
the American serial killer, habitually fried and ate body parts of his
In all human societies,
children are generally supposed to be cherished and protected, except in
special circumstances. Cannibalism is usually confined to the ritual
eating of enemies after victories. The murder and eating of children
violate the basic rules by which societies are governed, which is why
these horrors continue to haunt the imagination, and why they will
continue as archetypal fears so long as our species survives. Warner
makes the interesting suggestion that paedophiles are our modern
equivalent of bogeymen, and hints that too much preoccupation with
protecting children from possible abuse may deflect politicians from
taking steps to improve their lives in respect of education, nutrition,