Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children, one of his outpourings of black emotion painted on the walls of his Villa of a Deaf Man, is a heartbreaking reckoning with the march of time, power, and aging. A meditation on the lengths to which the mad gods – and following after them, humans seeking to imitate godlike power – will scapegoat and ravage the innocent to keep their demons at bay. Goya himself was furious with a filicidal Spain that was in the habit of sacrificing its sons to the whims of hapless and corrupt politicians, and his artistic response is devastating as he covers the interior of his dwelling with darkening ruminations.
The Greeks and Romans were always adept at sensing the limits and hidden costs to their desire for power. Hesiod writes of how the god Cronos – the Greek equivalent of the Roman Saturn – was warned that one of his children would overthrow him and chose to devour them even as they slipped from between their mothers legs covered with birth-dew: “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.”
See the cannibal god bent to his knees in a mockery of a father’s pious awe at nativity, his grasping corpse fingers clawing out to rend soft flesh. Hear the bones of his sons breaking on his teeth. Feel the wetness of the tears slipping from his horrified, enslaved eyes even as he continues time and again to press the flesh of his flesh to destruction. These regrets are the only reward for corrupt power, for the power itself long ago ceased to be a pleasure and took on the trappings of necessity. Empathize if you can, with the moral anguish that, even at his most compromised, the predator is convinced belongs to him alone. In all his anti-hero glory he is convinced that he is, in fact, the victim, that this is the cost of stability, civilization, and progress. It is a heavy burden he carries, heavier even than the weight of the stone that he has thrust down into his belly convinced it is his most recent progeny. It is a titanic nightmare of wounded power, the rawness of wanting more power, and the illusion of power in a god who is frightened of a child.
He vomits up the stone and his son returns to avenge his missing brothers.
There are a number of theories about what metaphor is most apt to explain the meaning of the painting – Spain’s interminable wars and political struggle, death, Goya’s worsening illnesses, his own relationship with his son. Here’s what I come back to, though. It’s about a father eating his son.
Musician Sufjan Stevens has a song called Saturn, in which he writes of Saturn bemoaning himself as a melancholy creature, a victim who is forced to, “consume the child that trails me.” The god’s quest for power has become an addiction and he has begun to imagine that he is the victim. Saturn makes an incision in the body of his son and holds it forth, saying, “Take this body, blood shed for you.
Fathers are meant to protect their sons. It’s the most natural instinct in the world. I can hardly believe that we must chastise segments of the clergy of the Catholic Church on this principle. A father does not leave bite marks on his children, and I imagine that the priest-predators know this. Perhaps they are sorry but are too inundated by the crippling addiction of sin to really care anymore, so their evil ever trails behind them like a shadow. They may say that they are conflicted in an attempt at a false penance. After all, they don’t want to be monsters.
But look, I don’t care. How is it possible that Saturn is still devouring his children?
The inhabitants of Canaan immolated their sons before Moloch. The Aztecs ripped the hearts out of the children of their enemies and built their cities on towers of skulls. Monarchs have frequently entombed their brothers and sisters into an early grave. Abortion clinics ease us into a carefree life of travel and a successful career path free of financial burdens.
We gaze upon Cronos as Goya paints him and we are horrified – but this is a nightmare that has become incarnate. It’s thinly disguised but we are living the actual, real-life reality of the most horrifying of myths. What Satan could only dream in his darkest fantasies we have appropriated as our dinner.
The Romans accused the early Christians of eating their children. Perhaps they were more prescient than we thought. Not that they actually understood Christianity, but they understood every other religion in the world quite well. They simply couldn’t believe there would be a difference, that Christianity would be about anything other than accessing the levers of power. In their minds, of course Christianity was involved in blood sacrifice and magical rituals because that’s what all the rituals they had ever known were about. How do we control the harvest? How do I force that stunning woman to fall in love with me? How do I influence those around me to my own advantage? This is the game. It is the sinew that scaffolds myth and cult. Goya does us the invaluable service of ripping away the flesh to reveal the bloody horror within.
Sufjan Stevens, wrung out from the personal cost of singing about the death of his mother during an earlier work, began to carry around his dog-eared book of Greek mythology. He noticed what others have noticed before him, that Cronos is an avatar of anti-Eucharist. This is what we’re left with when we empty religion of its defining virtue, the virtue by which we give God what we owe him with no thought of recompense. When the choice is made to use and abuse the Church as a means of consolidating power by manipulating the divine, we end up with spiritual fathers feasting on the flesh of their spiritual children.
The Church, however difficult it may be to believe right now, does have a true Father. As Gerard Manley Hopkins notes, the incarnate God pours his lifeblood like sweetness to our lenten lips, and although our scarce-sheathed bones are weary and bent, God shall strengthen and bring his children to fullness of stature.
Jesus Christ is everything that Cronos is not. He is sackcloth and ashes on the outside, smoldering with a sacrificial love on the inside – a true priest’s love. He is immolated and yet immortal. Broken open and yet ascended in clouds of angelic glory. He is bread. He is the food. We are the banquet-goers, but in this meal we do not meet as enemies vying for power but as lovers unfolding into each others souls.