The towering Palau Nacional, centrepiece of Barcelona’s 1929 International Exhibition, is home to one of Spain’s great museums, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), showcasing a thousand years of Catalan art in stupendous surroundings. Its scope is such that it can be difficult to know where to start, but if time is limited it’s recommended you concentrate on the medieval collection, which you’ll be able to see in an afternoon. This is split into two main sections, one dedicated to Romanesque art and the other to Gothic – periods in which Catalunya’s artists were pre-eminent in Spain. The collection of Romanesque frescoes in particular is the museum’s pride and joy, while MNAC also has impressive holdings of European Renaissance and Baroque art, as well as an unsurpassed collection of “modern” (ie nineteenth- and twentieth-century) Catalan art up until the 1940s – everything from the 1950s and later is covered by MACBA. In addition, temporary blockbuster exhibitions (separate admission charge) change every two to four months.

Romanesque collection

The Romanesque collection is the best of its kind in the world. From the eleventh century, the Catalan villagers of the high Pyrenees built sturdy stone churches, which were then lavishly painted in vibrantly coloured frescoes. To save them from degradation, the frescoes were moved to the museum and now are imaginatively presented in reconstructions of their original church settings. Still luminescent after eight hundred years, the frescoes have a vibrant, raw quality, best exemplified by those taken from churches in the Boí valley in the Catalan Pyrenees – such as the work of the anonymous “Master of Taüll” in the church of Sant Climent; look out for details such as the leper, to the left of the Sant Climent altar, patiently suffering a dog to lick his sores.

Gothic collection

The evolution from the Romanesque to the Gothic period was marked by a move from murals to painting on wood, and by the depiction of more naturalistic figures in scenes of the lives of saints and royalty. By the time of fifteenth-century Catalan artists like Jaume Huguet and Lluís Dalmau, works showed the strong influence of contemporary Flemish painting, in the use of denser colours, the depiction of crowd scenes and a concern for perspective. The last Catalan Gothic-era artist of note is the so-called Master of La Seu d’Urgell, responsible for a fine series of six paintings (Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saints Peter, Paul and Sebastian, and Mary Magdalene) that once formed the covers of an organ.

Renaissance and Baroque collections

Major European artists displayed include Rubens, Goya, El Greco, Zurbarán and Velázquez, though the museum is of course keen to play up Catalan works of the period, which largely absorbed the prevailing European influences – thus Barcelona artist Antoni Viladomat (1678–1755), whose twenty paintings of St Francis, executed for a monastery, are shown here in their entirety. However, more familiar to most will be the masterpieces of the Spanish Golden Age, notably Velázquez’s Saint Paul.

Modern art collection

MNAC ends on a high note with its modern Catalan art collection, which is particularly good on modernista and noucentista painting and sculpture, the two dominant schools of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rooms highlight individual artists and genres, shedding light on the development of art in an exciting period of Catalunya’s history, while there are fascinating diversions into modernista interior design (with some pieces by Gaudí), avant-garde sculpture and historical photography.

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