After two life-threatening illnesses, Goya was likely to have been concerned with his own mortality and was increasingly embittered by the civil strife occurring in Spain. Although he initially decorated the rooms of the house with more inspiring images, in time he overpainted them all with the intensely haunting pictures known today as the Black Paintings. So what does it all mean? Is it really an allegorical picture and, if so, who does Saturn represent? Some art experts believe that he may symbolize the autocratic Spanish state, devouring its own citizens; others interpret Saturn as the French Revolution, or even Napoleon. Although allegedly inspired by the more conventional “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1636, Prado, Madrid) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), the cannibalistic ferocity with which Saturn is eating his child makes it horrifyingly unique.
Reading about Goya and the Baroque period in art and the influence that religion , wealth, power and status had on the great artists of the time and how they interoperate their feelings of the time through their work brings me a full circle back to the title ‘sign of the times, How to represent ?
Looking at Roman and Greek mythology
Saturn (Latin: Saturnus pronounced [saˈtʊr.nʊs]) is a god in ancient Roman religion, and a character in myth as a god of generation, dissolution, plenty, wealth, agriculture, periodic renewal and liberation. In later developments, he also came to be a god of time.
The potential cruelty of Saturn was enhanced by his identification with Cronus, known for devouring his own children. He was thus used in translation when referring to gods from other cultures the Romans perceived as severe; he was equated with the Carthaginian god Baal Hamon, to whom children were sacrificed, and to Yahweh, whose Sabbath was referred to as Saturni dies, “Saturn’s day,” in a poem by Tibullus, who wrote during the reign of Augustus; eventually this gave rise to the word “Saturday” in English. The identification with Ba’al Hammon later gave rise to the African Saturn, a cult that enjoyed great popularity until the 4th century. It had a popular but also a mysteric character and required child sacrifices.
The position of Saturn’s festival in the Roman calendar led to his association with concepts of time, especially the temporal transition of the New Year. In the Greek tradition, Cronus was sometimes conflated with Cronus, “Time,” and his devouring of his children taken as an allegory for the passing of generations. The sickle or scythe of Father Time is a remnant of the agricultural implement of Cronus-Saturn, and his aged appearance represents the waning of the old year with the birth of the new, in antiquity sometimes embodied by Aion. In late antiquity, Saturn is syncretized with several deities, and begins to be depicted as winged, as is Kairos, “Timing, Right Time”
Goya, Plate 43, “Los Caprichos”: The sleep of reason produces monsters, 1799, etching, aquatint, drypoint, and burin, plate: 21.2 x 15.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Imagination united with reason
In the image, an artist, asleep at his drawing table, is besieged by creatures associated in Spanish folk tradition with mystery and evil. The title of the print, emblazoned on the front of the desk, is often read as a proclamation of Goya’s adherence to the values of the Enlightenment—without Reason, evil and corruption prevail.
However, Goya wrote a caption for the print that complicates its message, “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”
In other words, Goya believed that imagination should never be completely renounced in favour of the strictly rational. For Goya, art is the child of reason in combination with imagination.
Many of the prints in the Caprichos series express disdain for the pre-Enlightenment practices still popular in Spain at the end of the Eighteenth century (a powerful clergy, arranged marriages, superstition, etc.). Goya uses the series to critique contemporary Spanish society. As he explained in the advertisement, he chose subjects “from the multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society, as well as from the vulgar prejudices and lies authorized by custom, ignorance or interest, those that he has thought most suitable matter for ridicule.”
Goya brilliantly exploited the atmospheric quality of aquatint to create this fantastical image. This printing process creates the grainy, dream-like tonality visible in the background of “The Sleep of Reason.”