The oldest of the Greek myths must come from a far distant past, and over the millenia their stories have seemed increasingly bizarre. This article looks at paintings of one of the strangest tales in European mythology, concerning a father and his son, Uranus and Cronos (better-known in Latin as Saturn), now familiar as planets.
Uranus or Ouranos (the transliteration of the Greek Οὐρανός) was known in Latin as Caelus, and is one of the primordial deities who arose from the original Chaos or Chasm, alongside his mate Gaia. Uranus is the sky, and Gaia the earth. They had many children, which he hated, nicknaming them Titans. These include many of the fundamental features of the world, such as Oceanus (father of the river gods), Hyperion (father of Sun, Moon and Dawn), Phoebe (Roman Diana), and his youngest son Cronos.
Cronos, Cronus or Kronos (Greek Κρόνος) is better known by his Latin name of Saturn, and mustn’t be confused with Chronos, the god of time. When Uranus imprisoned the youngest of Gaia’s children in Tartarus, an abyss deep within the earth, their mother fashioned a large flint into a blade and mounted it as a sickle. She then called for one of her sons to come forward to castrate Uranus, and Cronos undertook that task.
Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi collaborated in this extraordinary painting of The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn which forms the ceiling of the Room of the Elements in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. Cronos is shown wielding a scythe with a black blade between the legs of an understandably tense Uranus. The figures around them may be references to other Titans, and to the celestial orb.
The blood of Uranus that was spilled in his castration fell on the earth (Gaia), where it gave rise to the Giants, the Erinyes (Furies), and ash tree Nymphs. Cronos threw his father’s testicles (and perhaps the rest of his genitals) into the sea, where they floated past Cyprus and produced the goddess Aphrodite (Venus), in one of the most extensively painted episodes in mythology. I will return to the birth of Aphrodite in a later article in this series.
The castrated Uranus became the sky, as the balance of power shifted from the primordial deities to the next generation of Titans including Cronos.
In Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Uranus and the Dance of the Stars from 1834, Uranus is the sky, and is surrounded by figures referring to the constellations.
Cronos then imprisoned the Cyclops and the ‘hundred handers’, further children of Uranus, in Tartarus. His father and mother prophesied that Cronos would suffer the same fate as his father, in being overthrown by one of his sons. To try to prevent that from happening, Cronos then started to devour his own children, which has been the theme of several great and deeply disturbing paintings.
Mediaeval miniatures had long portrayed Saturn’s horrific habit of eating his own children, sometimes in conjunction with his castrating his father. One of the earliest of the masterly depictions of Saturn is this painting by Peter Paul Rubens from 1636-1638.
By far the most elaborate must be Jan van Kessel the Elder’s Saturn Devouring his Children from about 1660. Cronos, with more than a touch of Chronos about him, is pulled by a pair of griffons across the sky in a skeletal chariot. Above his scythe are some of the signs of the zodiac, and down below strange events are occurring in the small town.
The most famous painting of this myth is Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son from 1819-23, one of fourteen ‘black paintings’ which he painted in oils on the walls of his house. These reflect his deepening despair as he approached old age, deaf and in the midst of civil strife. Amazingly, this painting was in his dining room.
Unfortunately, artists have also confused Cronos (as Saturn) with Chronos (Time), and both are now associated with the scythe; there is perhaps some excuse in that it may have been derived with reference to the sickle Cronos used to castrate his father.
Joachim von Sandrart’s Minerva and Saturn Protect Art and Science from Envy and Falsehood from 1644 uses readily identifiable figures in its allegory. Cronos is confounded with Chronos, with his metal-bladed scythe, and Minerva wears her characteristic helmet. Art and Science are infants in front of her, as two gorgon-like women reach out for them. A snarling dog heightens the threat, as do lightning bolts in the sky,
As for the planetary names, it was the Romans who named Saturn, and feasted in the Saturnalia, the precursor of modern Christmas. Uranus wasn’t discovered until 1781; after considerable dispute it was finally given its modern name in the middle of the nineteenth century.