Spain’s main art museum, the Prado is a must-see for anyone stopping by Madrid. The Prado is the best place in the world to see Spanish art—I know, shocking—and has one of the most extensive and impressive collections of European art anywhere. From Goya to El Greco, Titian to Velázquez, the Prado’s got it all.
If you had all the time in the world, you could spend whole days roaming through its halls. With more than 1,300 works on display, there’s definitely enough to fill your time with. To be honest, you could even spend whole days just in front of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, counting all the different ways a person can burn forever in hell.
But assuming you’ve only got one day, you’ll want to catch the highlights. Below, in chronological order, is a quick cheat-sheet to the works you can’t miss when you visit the Prado.
When it comes to European art history, it’s not a party until Fra Angelico’s invited. For starters, the man practically invented Renaissance art. Fine, that’s debatable—and anyway, great man history isn’t really our style—but Fra Angelico was one of the first artists to move beyond the Gothic style.
“Fra Angelico” translates to “Angelic friar,” and as his name suggests, he painted only religious subjects. The Dominican friar saw art as a crucial ingredient of faith that could inspire devotion.
Angelic as he was, art history cares more about Fra Angelico’s pioneering painting techniques. In his altarpieces, like this one, we see the beginnings of a realistic style derived from nature, heralding the start of the Renaissance. Instead of treating his paintings as religious allegories that didn’t need to resemble reality, Fra Angelico labored to make his subjects look like tangible, specific scenes. In this piece, he nailed it: wouldn’t you make the same face as the Virgin Mary if a stranger appeared in your house to announce that you were pregnant, even though you’ve never had sex?
We know very little about this Dutch painter’s life, but one thing is clear: he was one freaky dude. Although only 25 or so of his paintings survive, he’s carved out a permanent niche for himself in the European canon. Anytime you hear the name Bosch, think doomsday preacher on acid.
Bosch’s magnum opus, this triptych tells the story of fate of humanity. Spoiler: it looks a lot more cheerful if you ignore the last panel. Left to right, the panels depict the third day of creation in the Garden of Eden; sinners at a garden orgy; and the same sinners punished in hell.
If the work were just the center panel, being a human would actually seem like a lot of fun. It could easily be a scene out of a nudist hippie music festival. Well, except for the fact that the instruments come later, in hell. Stay tuned! Here, pasty, naked figures are having a grand time engaging in sinful sexual acts, like making out with a duck, sticking a bouquet of flowers in a butthole, and masturbating upside down in a lake while holding a large fruit with a bird in it between your legs. Weird, but only as weird as your garden-variety Berlin sex club. I have a lot of questions for Bosch, but one of them is this: if you were trying to warn people against the temptations of sin, why would you give them so many great ideas?
Bosch, being a good Christian, knew that the only thing in that lay store for these free-lovin’ fornicators was not chlamydia but eternal damnation. In Hell. Remember, kids, orgasm only lasts a few seconds, but eternal damnation is, well, eternal.
And what does this hell look like? Don’t worry, Bosch leaves nothing to the imagination. The whole right panel is devoted to one of my personal favorite depictions of hell ever. You really have to wonder what kind of mushrooms were growing in his backyard; it’s hard to imagine how he could have dreamt all this up while every other painter in Europe was still pretty much painting the same three pictures of Jesus over and over again.
Bosch’s hell isn’t just any old hell but “musical hell.” No, musical hell is not missing the pregame and being forced to listen to “electro trance” for six hours basically sober. Nor is it getting stuck babysitting a kid who just discovered Frozen. Musical hell is “the significant presence of instruments used to torture sinners who have devoted their time to secular music.” I already suspected that I’d be seeing all my musician exes in hell, but always nice to get a second opinion!
Although we don’t really know who this dashing gentleman is, one popular suspect is Cardinal Giovanni Alidosi. Apparently, this cardinal was a man “for whom faith and religion were never by any means certain, pure or sacred.” Wait, what? A Catholic Renaissance Cardinal who didn’t think faith or religion were certain, pure or sacred? Was that… allowed?
This portrait shows off Raphael’s knack for painting people, as quoted on the Prado website, “as more real than they are.” And how is that possible, you might ask? Let’s investigate.
In my unscholarly opinion, when I stood in front of this work, the Cardinal’s eyes seemed to be staring directly into the depths of my soul. Which begs the question: how do a bunch of pigments suspended in an oil medium mix together in a way that makes you feel like they know your most private secrets?
At the same time, the Cardinal isn’t judging you. He looks gentle and understanding, like he sees you for who you are and accepts you anyway. There seems to be genuine tolerance in his gaze; if the portrait is actually of Alidosi, then it’s pretty impressive that Raphael managed to capture his essence in paint. My portraits couldn’t even be matched to a real person in a lineup. Well played, Raphael, well played.
No, not that kind of golden shower! Get your head out of the gutter. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of salacious content here to satisfy you weirdos. This painting is the first in Titian’s Poesie paintings, a series of large-scale paintings based on myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, made for Philip II of Spain. Danaë and the Shower of Gold shows the moment when the god Jupiter “possesses the princess in the form of golden rain.” Leave it to the kinky Romans to dream up this stuff.
But that’s not all. This painting is actually based on an earlier picture of the same scene that Titian made in Rome for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. According to Prado, it was made “in reference to the cardinal’s love affair with a courtesan.” Scandalous.
A generation before Velázquez, a mysterious Greek transplant named El Greco set up shop in Toledo. Today, he’s one of Spain’s best-known artists of all time. His immediately recognizable style set him apart from his contemporaries, who were baffled (and sometimes pissed) that he broke so far away from canon. Although he became popular and successful, his work was polarizing. Some loved his evocative and emotional take on spirituality, but others accused him of taking too many liberties with tradition.
El Greco painted The Crucifixion for the high altar of an Augustinian seminary in Madrid, Colegio de la Encarnación. The ghostly lighting, elongated limbs and dramatic compositions are all classic El Greco, making him a super easy painter to identify. If you head to the Prado with a non-art world friend, feel free to show off how finely-tuned your arty radar is by casually pointing out an El Greco from across the hall.
Here’s another fun Roman story for you. Ever wondered how the Milky Way got its name? According to this legend, it’s pretty literal: the goddess Juno’s breast milk. When one of Jupiter’s (many) affairs with a mortal gave him a son, the hero Hercules, Jupiter started worrying about his immortality. He was only half god, after all. To be on the safe side, he snuck the baby into his wife’s bed as she slept so Hercules could suckle on her breast milk. This would make him immortal, I guess. Weird that he would know that, but you don’t question the gods.
But little Hercules blew it when he got a little too enthusiastic and chomped down on Juno’s nipple—boys, there’s a lesson here for you. She woke up and very understandably pushed him away, so Hercules didn’t get to be immortal after all. And Jupiter must have had a lot of explaining to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if Juno made a Lemonade-style visual revenge album about the whole thing. But even if a Grammy-winning record didn’t come out of the incident, a galaxy did; the milk that spilled out of Juno’s breast became the Milky Way. Moral of the story: never, ever bite the nip!
If you even know what a painting is, you probably know this one. Even though it comes off a bit on the boring side for those of us who grew up in a post-MTV, Damien Hirst sharks and internet porn world, at the time, this painting changed everything. It was painted by Diego Velázquez, golden boy of Spain’s Golden Age and court painter under King Philip IV of the Hapsburgs, everyone’s favorite inbred royal dynasty. The Prado is stuffed with his work, but to find Las Meninas, just look for the crowd of tourists.
To this day, scholars go wild over Las Meninas. When it was made, it pushed the conceptual boundaries of painting itself, redefining what art stood for and what it could be. Allow me to explain. Many art historians point to this painting as the starting point of modern art, and even of modern thought. Why? Las Meninas is the first painting that is self-conscious of itself as a work of art, and at the same time, of art as a form of illusion. Sounds like some art history PhD candidate jargon, but it really just means that Velázquez was the first to break the fourth wall. Oops, now it just sounds like film school jargon. Let’s break it down.
In the middle plane, Velázquez painted himself behind the easel. He’s looking out of the canvas and at the viewer. In the context of the painting, though, he’s actually probably looking at the king and queen, who are reflected in what is probably a mirror in the background of the painting. But if this is true, it puts you, the viewer, exactly where the king and queen should be. Trippy, especially for a seventeenth century court painting.
You’re in luck. This list was supposed to give you 10 paintings, but since you can’t talk about the nude maja without mentioning the clothed one, you get both majas for the price of one.
The Naked Maja was probably commissioned by the Spanish Prime Minister, Manuel de Gobdoy, to hang in his separate cabinet reserved for nude paintings. If that sounds a bit like an old-timey porn gallery to you, it also did to the Spanish Inquisition. They confiscated the painting and dragged Gobdoy and Goya in front of the tribunal for corrupting public morals. And yet, they found nothing wrong with other saucy nudes, like famous ones by Titian and Velázquez. Why?
For starters, pubes. I know, I know—please try to contain your horror. If you’re under 25 and don’t know what “pubes” are, just skip ahead to the next paragraph. I don’t want to be the one to break this to you. Anyway, this painting is usually cited as the first in the Western canon to paint a woman’s public hair without “negative connotations,” i.e., labeling her as a prostitute.
Then you have her facial expression. The church fathers must have been more than a little unsettled by Goya’s maja’s saucy, straight-on stare. This unprecedented shamelessness inspired other well-known works, like Manet’s Olympia.
Finally, there’s the fact that this isn’t a mythical Venus that could be passed off as an allegory for some lofty ideal. It’s clearly just a naked Spanish lady; the clothed maja, who originally hung over the naked one to hide her from view, makes this obvious. She’s dressed in the popular lower-class style of the day, bright, colorful and designed to channel traditional Spanish vibes in reaction against the upper class’ wannabe-French fashion. Even once they got over the horror of the pubes, this was just too much for the upstanding members of the Spanish public to handle.
Goya’s most famous painting, The Third of May 1808 dramatizes a scene from Napoleon’s occupation of Spain. On the date of the title, a firing squad executed patriots from Madrid who rebelled against the French occupation. Goya makes his political views very clear. The patriots appear as courageous martyrs bathed in bright light, while the soldiers form a faceless, threatening and uniform mass.
The painting was revolutionary for the way it depicted the horrors of war. In the grand historical painting tradition, war paintings were usually more heroic than horrific. But Goya strips war of all its political propaganda and shows it as the senseless tragedy that it really is. For this reason, scholars point to The Third of May 1808 as the birth of a new tradition of war painting that inspired later landmark works like Picasso’s Guernica.
We all know how these things go. Everyone’s having a tolerable if not amazing time at grandpa Bob’s fiftieth birthday bash. Next thing you know, uncle Jerome the deviant has a highball too many and starts chomping down on his son’s head. Or at least that’s how it probably went down at Goya’s family reunions.
Actually, this painting is based on the Greek creation myth. Saturn, the Roman name for the Titan Cronus, ruled the universe until one of his sons overthrew him. When Saturn found out one of his sons was destined to become more powerful than him, Saturn decided there was only one way to settle this: eat the kid. Pretty twisted, but what parent hasn’t overreacted once or twice? Parenting is hard. Nobody’s perfect.
Goya made this painting towards the end of his life, when things weren’t exactly going swimmingly for him either. The Napoleonic conquest of Spain, which he painted in The Third of May, left him really rattled. Plus, he had gone deaf from an illness. All this inspired his Black Paintings series, painted on the walls of the Quinta del Sordo (“House of the Deaf Man”), where Goya was living in near-total isolation.
Not exactly ending on a high note, but at least today, Goya gets to be the most-represented painter in one of the world’s top museums. And on this list. Hard to say which is the higher honor.
Images via Web Gallery of Art, Museo del Prado, Wikipedia.