Art Spotlight: Saturn Devouring His Son

'Saturn Devouring His Son' by Francisco Goya. Imagno/Getty Images

Here we see "Saturn Devouring His Son," the most famous "black painting" of Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya (1746 - 1828). Originally painted directly on the wall of the artist's house between 1819 and 1823, it stems from a dark time in Goya's creative life -- indeed from the vortex of his final mental and physical decline.

All the paintings from this time -- including "The Great He-Goat"-- ruminated on the mysteries of violence and death, but this one exudes a madness all its own. I can think of no painting short of Repin's "Ivan the Terrible and His Son" that portrays such tragic, lost eyes.

The painting of course illustrates the mythic Greek titan Cronus ("Saturn" to the Romans) as he cannibalizes his children upon birth to prevent his own eventual overthrow. And indeed, his son Zeus survives his father's wrath and eventually casts him into the pit of Tartarus.

The Science of Saturn's Hunger

It's as potent and symbolic a myth as you could ask for, but it also hits pretty close to home if you've ever felt the urge to eat an infant's toes or suffered a grandmother's loving cheek pinch.

Yale Psychologist Oriana Aragon devotes much of her work to human emotional connections, including the negative reactions that emerge from an overwhelming positive emotion -- something she calls a "dimorphous expression." You love the baby so much, you want to bite it. You're so happy, you burst into tears.

In a 2014 study, Aragon and her team presented participants with images of babies, some more infantile than others. They charted their emotional responses to each image, as well as the duration of the emotional charge.They found that test subjects who showed more bitey, pinchy aggression when looking at a cute baby also showed a larger drop-off in positive emotion five minutes later.

Aragon suggests that dimorphous expressions may be a way of re-balancing the scales, normalizing after an intense dose of the cute.That 5-minute drop, therefore, seems to demonstrate how negative emotions allow us to moderate intense positive emotions and restore us to balance -- thus preventing a true cute overload of explosive proportions.

By the way, Goya was likely inspired by an earlier 17th century painting of Saturn by Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), who you may remember from our podcast episode "Stendhal Syndrome: Kicked in the Brain by Art." It's a lovely, haunting piece as well:

'Saturn devouring his son' by Pieter Rubens.
Fine Art Images/Heritage/Getty

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.