The Museo del Prado is Madrid’s premier attraction – well over two million visitors enter its doors each year – and one of the oldest and greatest collections of art in the world. Built as a natural science museum in 1775, the Prado opened to the public in 1819, and houses the finest works collected by Spanish royalty – for the most part, avid, discerning and wealthy buyers – as well as Spanish paintings gathered from other sources over the past two centuries. Finding enough space for displaying the works has always been a problem, but after fourteen years of arguments, delays and controversy, the €152 million Rafael Moneo-designed extension, which includes a stylish glass-fronted building incorporating the eighteenth-century cloisters of the San Jerónimo church, was finally opened in 2007. The new wing houses the restaurant and café areas, an expanded shop, an auditorium, temporary exhibition spaces, restoration and conservation workshops and a new sculpture gallery.
The museum’s highlights are its early Flemish collection – including almost all of Bosch’s best work – and, of course, its incomparable display of Spanish art, in particular that of Velázquez (including Las Meninas), Goya (including the Majas and the Black Paintings) and El Greco. There’s also a huge section of Italian painters (Titian, notably) collected by Carlos V and Felipe II, both great patrons of the Renaissance, and an excellent collection of seventeenth-century Flemish and Dutch pictures gathered by Felipe IV, including Rubens’ Three Graces. The museum has also hosted an increasing number of critically acclaimed temporary displays in recent years. Even in a full day you couldn’t hope to do justice to everything here, and it’s perhaps best to make a couple of more focused visits.
Exploring the museum
To follow the route proposed by the museum, bear right after the Puerta de los Jerónimos entrance and head into the central hallway – the Sala de las Musas. From here you are guided through the early Flemish, Italian and Spanish collections on the ground floor before being directed upstairs. A tour of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian and French collections in the northern wing gives way to the Flemish and Dutch galleries on the second floor where work from Rubens and Rembrandt is to the fore. Back on the first floor visitors are ushered through the Spanish Golden Age collections with their heavyweight contributions from El Greco, Velázquez and Murillo before enjoying the delights of Goya which stretch up to the second floor once again. From there you return to the ground floor for Goya’s Black Paintings before concluding the visit with a tour of the grandiose historical epics that make up the remainder of the nineteenth-century Spanish collection.
The Prado is much too big for a single visit to do the collection justice; however, if you are pressed for time here is a list of some of the works you should not miss.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. A surrealistic masterpiece years ahead of its time.
The Triumph of Death by Pieter Brueghel. A disturbing and macabre depiction of hell by the Flemish master.
The Annunciation by Fra Angelico. A ground-breaking early Renaissance work.
Self-portrait by Dürer. Insightful self-portrait by the German genius.
The Descent from the Cross by Van der Weyden. An emotive and colourful depiction of the Deposition.
The Romanesque frescoes. Stunning frescoes from the Romanesque churches in Segovia and Soria.
David and Goliath by Caravaggio. The Italian’s theatrical use of chiaroscuro at its best.
The Adoration of the Shepherds by El Greco. One of a series of revolutionary Mannerist works by the Greek-born painter.
Las Meninas by Velázquez. One of the most technically adroit and fascinating paintings in Western art.
Artemisa by Rembrandt. The Dutchman used his wife Saskia as a model for this portrayal of the heroic queen.
Sir Endymion Porter by Van Dyck. A superlative work by the Dutch court painter famous for his portraits of Charles I.
The Three Graces by Rubens. One of the great classically-inspired works by the Flemish genius.
Charles V at Múhlberg by Titian. A magnificent equestrian portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor.
The Lavatorio by Tintoretto. Epic masterpiece depicting Christ washing the feet of the disciples, that once belonged to Charles I.
La Maja Desnuda y La Maja Vestida by Goya. A pair of supremely seductive portraits of a woman reclining on a bed of pillows, one clothed, one naked.
Dos y Tres de Mayo by Goya. Timeless and iconic images on the horror of war.
Goya’s Black Paintings. A series of penetrating and haunting images from the latter part of Goya’s career.