This past Saturday, on 20 June here in the United States, we took time to recognize the wonderful fathers and father figures who are important in our lives by celebrating Father’s Day. I too participated in this special day of commemoration and actually had my cards and gifts ready to go early (I still can’t believe I actually got my presents ready early this year, that never happens for me so it’s quite a shock.) But now that we’ve taken some time to slow down and celebrate some great dads, I would like to take a moment to talk about a not so great dad. In fact, I would say this dad is closer to a horrible, terrifying dad. Who also happens to be a murderer. And a cannibal.
I love artwork, and there are a few places and works that have really stood out to me. Seeing Guernica at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Last Supper in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie Milan, the amazing Young Sick Bacchus (one of my all time favorites) at the Borghese Gallery, and Michelangelo’s masterpiece at the Sistine Chapel have been a few of the pieces that I feel have really spoken to me through the centuries with their poignancy, beauty and incredible skill.
But some artwork makes a different kind of impression. Which is what happened to me when I walked into one of the galleries in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and came face to face with this:
The piece is called “Saturn Devouring His Son,” by Francisco de Goya, and it’s considered by many to be one of the most frightening paintings ever created. “Saturn Devouring His Son” is part of a series of 14 works known by art historians as “Goya’s Black Paintings,” alluding to the supernatural, eerie subject matter depicted. The paintings were never meant to be seen, they were painted by Goya at the end of his life as he struggled with an increasingly disillusioned view of humanity as well as deafness caused by lead poisoning. He painted these works directly on the walls of his home, surrounding himself with the fearsome imagery day and night. The works were eventually moved from his home after his death and are now displayed at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
This bad dad is the Titan god Saturn, father of Jupiter, King of the Olympian gods. Terrified by a prophecy foretelling that one of his offspring would overthrow him, Saturn ate his children so that none of them could ever threaten him.
I love mythology, and especially Greek mythology. I’m familiar with this story. But seeing this crazed ravenous, terrifying version of Saturn drove this story home in a way it never had before. Considering that Jupiter later freed his siblings unharmed after he overthrew his father, this particular depiction of the myth was more gruesome than anything I had encountered before.
These paintings are fascinating, but they’re also incredibly sad. I can’t imagine surrounding yourself with these frightening images, living terrorized by your demons brought to life through paint. I personally know I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I had this image of Saturn staring at me 24/7. Like all artwork, it is an incredible opportunity to gain insight into the artist and into the inner workings of a creative mind. What burdens was Goya carrying, and what, if anything, did this image of Saturn mean to him? Did this capture the ways he might have felt about his own father? Or perhaps about father child relationships? Or about something different altogether? We’ll never probably know for sure, but it’s fascinating to speculate about.
What do you think about this incredible series of works? Despite how shocking I found them initially, I’ll admit I walked through the gallery many times and then once again before we left the museum. They’re so personal, so mysterious and I couldn’t look away. They’ve stuck in my head ever since.
What paintings have made an impression on you? What impact have they made on your writing and on your own art? I would love to hear more about your sources of inspiration and works that have shaped your own art and writing. Have a great Wednesday!