Saturn (Peter Paul Rubens)

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Saturn Devours His Son, 1636.

Saturn or Saturn Devours His Son is an oil painting by Peter Paul Rubens, finished in 1636.

In Greek mythology, the elder gods Gaia and Uranus had many children, the titans, and several weaker ones. Uranus hated the weaker ones and imprisoned them in Tartarus. Gaia called for her titan children to overthrow Uranus, and only Chronos was willing. Chronos castrated his father, but kept Gaia's children in Tartarus. This angered Gaia, and she and Uranus cursed him to be one day overthrown by his own children. In order to avoid this curse, Chronos ate his children the moment they were born, but eventually his wife Rhea (who is also his sister) wised up, and fed him a fake child instead of his real son, Zeus. When Zeus got older, he rescued his siblings from Chronos and they fought the titans and imprisoned them underground.

As the Greek empire was replaced by the Roman empire, the majority of the legends surrounding Chronos were appropriated into the Roman god Saturn, which is why this painting refers to Saturn.

Strangely, the painting was commissioned by Philip IV of Spain for the Torre de la Parada, a hunting lodge. I wonder why he wanted such a graphic painting? Perhaps fear of his own children or hatred of his father?


I love this painting because it is so utterly shocking to look at. Saturn resolutely tears into the flesh of his child's chest while the infant shrieks in pain. Rebens denotes Saturn (Chronos) with his trademark sickle. The three stars at the top represent the planet Saturn which, when viewed with the weak telescopes of the 1600s, appeared to be three different objects, but the two outer lights were actually the tips of the rings.