As far as old castles go, the Prado Museum is a pretty special one, housing over a thousand works of art from the 12th century to the early 19th century.
Based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, the Prado Museum boasts works from the Spanish masters Velázquez and Goya, plus works by Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, Rubens and more. But where do you start? Here’s our guide to the top 10 Prado Museum highlights.
Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch
Housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1939, this thoroughly mind-boggling triptych is packed with hallucinatory images of hedonism. It’s surely one of the greatest masterpieces of the Northern Renaissance and while indescribable on so many levels, it’s thought to be an enigmatic warning against the temptations of pleasure-seeking. Either way, it was clearly ahead of its time, and maybe it still is.
El Tres de Mayo 1808 by Goya
The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid has long been acclaimed as one of the great paintings of all time, and it’s been a must-see in the Prado Museum since 1827. Known to many art aficionados as the world’s first modern painting, it’s a shocking depiction of the horrors of war, inflicted by the French on Spanish freedom fighters on May 02, 1808.
TOP TIP: The Prado museum is vast, so it’s worth picking up a free paper map at the entrance. All the rooms are numbered from 1 to 102 in Roman numerals. It’s a good idea to brush up on your I, V, X, L and C.
The Triumph of Death by Pieter Bruegel
While some people attempt to struggle against their dark destiny in this dark, macabre painting, others are accepting of their fate. Two lovers in the lower right seem to have escaped Death and another lady strums a guitar quite peacefully. This disturbing and macabre panorama comes courtesy of the Flemish master Pieter Bruegal and depicts the ever-present threat of death in medieval Europe, that was introduced by the Black Death
The Annunciation by Fra Angelico
This ground-breaking early Renaissance work with Gothic undertones was produced for the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole. As part of the decorative scheme there it remains one of the most important murals from the Renaissance period in Italy. The middle panel depicts the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary, while on the left, Adam and Eve are being evicted from Paradise. It’s basically the salvation and damnation of humanity at the same time. Worth a look.
The Descent from the Cross by Van der Weyden
Rogier van der Weyden never signed his work, so it’s hard to tell if this emotive, busy depiction of Jesus being carried from the cross is his oldest work or not. Either way it’s one of the most impressive and thought-provoking. Originally an altarpiece intended for a chapel in Leuven, the Spanish claimed it in the 16th century. We can see Mary Magdalene in her low-cut dress, and Mary of the Jesus’s-mother-kind, passing out from shock.
Goya’s Black Paintings
Goya had a serious illness which made him go deaf, and his anger and impatience at the situation changed his work entirely, most notoriously this series of 14 haunting paintings. The Black Paintings once decorated the walls of the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man) and were transferred to canvas in 1873. Nobody even knows the meaning of the spirits, witches and gargoyles he painted, but they’re eerie nonetheless.
TOP TIP: Don’t miss the underground vault at the Prado – it’s a bling-fest of all things sparkly. Here’s where you’ll find the emeralds, rubies and diamonds that once belonged to Grand Dauphin Louis, son of Louis XIV and father of Felipe V (the first Bourbon king of Spain). It’s a definite Prado Museum must-see exhibit.
David and Goliath by Caravaggio
The 17th century Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio was a bit of a rebel, always involved in duels and deaths and narrowly escaping justice. He was also remarkably talented and created a whole new style of painting called Tenebrism, which involved ‘chiaroscuro’ – light and shade, in a new way. David and Goliath shows David’s victory over the giant, holding up his head as a trophy. The lighting makes it extremely realistic!
Las Meninas by Velázquez
Diego Velázquez was unquestionably the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, and Las Meninas is one of the most fascinating paintings in Western art. As a behind-the-scenes look at the Spanish court, it shows a young Margarita Teresa, who would later take the title of Holy Roman Empress, among others. As a royal painter to the king, it was a bold move for Velázquez to paint himself into this, but he did so complete with a paintbrush, causing the BBC to call it “the world’s first photobomb.” You must see this painting.
Artemisia by Rembrandt
It’s said that Rembrandt used his wife Saskia as a model for this painting – one of a young queen draped in riches and jewels. Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes (also known as Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup) is signed “REMBRANDT F: 1634” and could depict either lady. In the case of Artemisia, the cup she holds is likely an ash and herb homage to her dead husband. In the case of Sophonisba, it’s the poison that killed her.
Charles V at Múhlberg by Titian
This portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V on Horseback is an impressive oil-on-canvas painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Titian, painted in 1548. It was intended as a tribute to Charles V, following his victory in the April 1547 Battle of Muhlberg against the Protestant armies. The gleam of Charles’ armour and the use of deep reds on canvas are reminders of heroism in battle.