Madrid: The must-see paintings in El Prado museum

posted in: Europe | 12

El Prado museum is one of the most famous and visited places in Madrid. It’s really big and it can keep you entertained for hours.

Inside the museum is strictly forbidden to take pictures. You can safely leave your bags in a locker room, except for your smartphone, which you can use to follow an online audio guide. You’ll also absolutely need the exhibition map available at the tickets desk, to find your way around the museum.

The entrance ticket is not cheap. If you don’t have a lot of time or you’re not a huge fan of classic painting, you can enjoy a free entrance available for the last two hours of every single day. You’ll have to well organize your tour in advance, though, because the place surely can’t be seen in such a short time. Keep also in mind that the queue for free entrances is always very long.

10 unmissable Works at El Prado museum in Madrid

Let’s say you are in a little hurry, and you only want to see the highlights of this very wide collection. The museum website gives you a map of the floors and a pretty exhaustive description of each painting. You can check what you’re interested in beforehand and prepare a route.

Therefore, how can you choose what to see?
Obviously, it depends on your taste.
Not being passionate about classic art, my personal choice depended on the following criteria:
– I love when lights and shadows take full control of the image (I never miss a Caravaggio painting)
– I find paintings full of little details very curious and funny (Bosch and Brueghel)
– When living in Belgium, I fell in love with Flemish painters and their schools (Rubens, Patinier, Teniers and Van de Weyden)
– Being in Spain, I researched some local classics, and I added a couple of the most interesting to the must-see list (Goya and Velásquez)

Let’s start the virtual tour, in alphabetical order, so that I don’t have to choose a favourite!

1. The Garden of the Earthly Delights Triptych, Bosch

The three frontal panels of The Garden of the Earthly Delights Triptych  by Bosch
The three frontal panels of The Garden of the Earthly Delights Triptych – Bosch

It’s the end of 1400 and Bosch gifts us with one of his most complex and bizarre works: The Garden of the Earthly Delights Triptych. The painting shows humanity’s destiny, starting with Paradise on the left panel, where God is together with Adam and Even. The central image gives the actual name to the painting and it vaguely looks like the Garden of Eden. But here confusion and deception reign. There are a lot of fantasy creatures, characters busy with doubtful activities and curious objects. The right panel is about Hell and punishment, with dark colours and grim scenes.

On the back of the triptych, there’s the Third Day of creation. It’s a bit difficult to see, since the panels are open wide and the canvas is placed close to the wall. But its monochromatic tone contrasts a lot with the front of the painting and it’s quite interesting to have a quick look.

I love these images full of characters and tiny information, where you always find something new to look at! Bosch was a genius in this style and you could spend an hour staring at The Garden of the Earthly Delights and still find new details. For instance, have you noticed the dog with only 2 legs? The giant strawberry? The notes on the butt of one of the little men? I wonder…. But, why???

2. The Triumph of Death, Brueghel

The Triumph of Death by Brueghel
The Triumph of Death – Brueghel

Brueghel like Bosch knows how to fill the canvas with as many little details as possible. The Triumph of Death is a sort of warm colour version of the Hell in Bosch triptych I described above. An army of skeletons runs across Earth killing and destroying everyone and everything on its way. Some men fight back, some hide, others submit, and most are already dead. Death is at the center of the painting with riding a red horse with a sickle in hand.

3. David and Goliath, Caravaggio

 David and Goliath by Caravaggio
David and Goliath – Caravaggio

It’s the beginning of 1600 and Caravaggio paints twice the Biblical story of David and Goliath. One of the paintings is in El Prado museum of Madrid, while the other one is in Galleria Borghese in Rome. Some scholars say the Spanish one was painted by someone else, or maybe a copy or a lost original, but I want to believe I saw an original Caravaggio.

As always, he plays with lights and darkness, shaping the characters, hiding the backgrounds and driving your attention where he wants you to watch, in a way only a few artists managed to achieve in the history of art. It’s an interesting fact that Goliath is Caravaggio’s self-portrait. After all, how can you not give in to the temptation of cutting off your head and placing it in a painting for the cardinal’s family?

4. Saturn, Goya (and the Black Paintings)

Saturn by Goya and Saturn Devouring a Son by Rubens
Saturn – Goya (left) / Saturn Devouring a Son – Rubens (right)

I choose Saturn by Goya because the theme is especially grim, but the entire section of the Black Paintings is worth a visit. It consists in a series of paintings with mixed techniques that the artist had done on the walls of his own house nearby Madrid. When the house was bought by the Baron Émile d´Erlanger, the artworks were transferred on canvas, loosing much of their colours (I haven’t dug into how this was done, but it would be really interesting knowing the process!). The paintings never left Madrid area and are now in the El Prado Museum, in a room as dark as the paintings themselves.

On his own walls Goya was able to paint freely, without requests nor specific themes, leaving his imagination to go wild. Dark colours, violent and gloomy scenes, Saturn that eats his own son trying to avoid the prophecy. So much joy on the home walls!

5. The Third of May 1808 in Madrid, Goya

The Third of May 1808 in Madrid and The Second of May 1808 in Madrid, both by Goya
The Third of May 1808 in Madrid – Goya (left) / The Second of May 1808 in Madrid – Goya (right)

I’m going to add a second work by Goya that, honestly, wouldn’t make into my top 10. But since it’s in Madrid and it tells such an important moment in Spanish history, it’s worth mentioning it. The painting shows the executions of some patriots by a firing squad from Napoleon’s army, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

There’s another painting in El Prado museum, The Second of May 1808 in Madrid, with a fight between the rioters and the French. Both paintings are also known by other titles, such as “Charge of the Mamelukes”, “The executions on Principe Pio Hill” or “The fights against the Mamelukes”. Note that in Spanish “mameluco” means both the Napoleon French soldiers, and someone… stupid!

6. Charon crossing the Styx, Patinir

Charon crossing the Styx by Patinir
Charon crossing the Styx – Patinir

It’s the 20´s in 1500, and from Belgium comes Charon that transfers a lost soul to Hell. Dante Alighieri finished writing his Divina Comedy about a hundred years before and he’s surely smiling in his tomb because Patinir’s representation is beautiful.

The main subject is at the center of the canvas, but the landscape predominates the picture.  The image is vertically divided into three areas: Paradise on the left, very green with a blue sky, the river at the center and Hell on the right, with fire, dark colours and a scary Cerberus waiting for the boat. Scholars say Patinir took some ideas from the already mentioned Garden of the Earthly Delights Triptych by Bosch. And it actually has a similar colour palette and space partition.

7. Temptations of Saint Anthony the Abbot, Teniers

Two versions of the Temptations of Saint Anthony the Abbot, both by Teniers
Temptations of Saint Anthony the Abbot – Teniers (both)

The temptations of Saint Anthony is a fairly common theme. In El Prado alone there are multiple examples, including a couple by the already mentioned Bosch and Patinir. There are two paintings by Teniers in the museum, pretty similar to each other and both really interesting. In both cases, the saint is pictured kneeling, looking behind his back, and wearing a blue robe. Once he’s holding a Bible, while the other time he’s putting his hands together in prayer. There are always bats flying, a cross, running water, the Devil with horns, an open book, and bizarre creatures. Other things are different, for instance, the set: one scene is in a cave, the other one in a church in ruins.
Both paintings are packed with Christian symbols and allegories not always very clear. For instance, I’m not sure I get the meaning of the unclear creature with a candle on its head that, while riding a bird with no wings, is killing a frog (riding a flying fish).

8. Descent from the Cross, Van Der Weyden

Descent from the Cross by Van Der Weyden
Descent from the Cross – Van Der Weyden

The descent from the cross by Van de Weyden dates back to 1435 circa and it was destined for a church in Leuven, in Flanders. It might be slightly less spectacular than Rembrandt or Ruben’s versions. But the shape of the artwork alone made me like it. It’s not a rectangle and it’s not a cross: it’s half a cross. Specifically, the top part of a cross. And on this half, the bottom half of Christ’s cross is painted.

Besides an original Jesus without the beard, a few Bible characters are present at the scene, such as Nicodemus, John the Evangelist and Magdalen. Mary the mother of Jesus is passed out and incredibly pale. Her body, hold up by the other characters, recreates the same shape as Jesus’. The colours are vivid and the image is full of gold. But the forced perspective that disturbs the view, the contorted bodies and the faces full of pain, make the scene incredibly sad and touchy.

9. Las Meninas, Velásquez

Las Meninas by Velasquez
Las Meninas – Velásquez

Las Meninas (“The Ladies-in-waiting”) is probably the most known painting by Velásquez. It dates back in 1656 and it’s really original for its time. It shows the backstage of the Spanish royal family portrait, Philip IV and Mariana of Austria. The protagonists are their daughter, Infanta Margaret Theresa, and her meninas, the ladies-in-waiting. The king and the queen, curiously, are only seen in the mirror at the girls’ back. In the background, we can also see other characters, like Velásquez himself and court personnel, like the chamberlain and a guard.

The viewer has the impression to be standing in the room with the royal couple. Velásquez is looking at them to take inspiration for his painting, but it really feels like he’s looking at you outside of the canvas. With this trick of perspective and mirrors, Velásquez manages to give dignity even to the poor tourists.

10. Venus, Titian

Venus with Organist and a Dog,  Venus with Organist and Cupid, by 
The Naked Maya (bottom left) / The clothed Maya (bottom right) - Goya
Venus with Organist and a Dog (top left) / Venus with Organist and Cupid (top right)
The Naked Maya (bottom left) / The clothed Maya (bottom right) – Goya

El Prado own various paintings by Titian, and the famous Danae is one of them. I headed to see it, but in the same room I got distracted by his the two versions of Venus, With Organist and Cupid, and with Organist and a Dog. The two paintings are very similar. Venus is laying down on a bad and she entertains herself with a little dog or by a baby/Cupid. At the same time, the musician pretends to play the organ while staring at her nudity. Peculiar. In the background there’s a garden with a fountain and a couple having a walk.

In the same exhibition room, El Prado also has two more very famous paintings: The Naked Maya and The Cloathed Maya, by Goya. Same lady, the Duchess of Alba, in the very same position. This thing of the double versions in the same room is really interesting!

Disclaimer:  I’m not an art expert nor a touristic guide. Everything you read on this page comes from information given by El Prado, from an ex-guide of the museum, Wikipedia or from my personal observations during my time in Madrid. If something doesn’t correspond to the truth, please send me a message with reference to the correct data and I’ll fix the mistakes!

Pinterest image: highlights and must-see works of the El Prado museum in Madrid

12 Responses

  1. Angela

    I need to visit Madrid again and pay some proper attention to these pieces of art ☺️ Thanks for sharing

    • The Lady

      Me too: visiting everything in one go is almost impossible! Thank you for reading!

  2. Sandra Ans

    Thank you for the tips for visiting museum, I found them very useful, especially the information about the last 2 hour-free-entrance. If you stay in Madrid longer, you can also visit the museum every evening. Then you will be able to see a little bit of everything without a rush and enjoy the art every single day. Why not, right?

    • The Lady

      Indeed! I’m planning to go back to the museum in the evening on my next visit to Madrid and see what I wasn’t able to see last time! 🙂

  3. Terri

    What a great idea to give a blog tour of 10 must-see paintings in Madrid. I need to do this for my National Gallery of Art in DC.

    • The Lady

      Virtual blog tour 🙂 I’d love to do the same for other museums I’ve visited. This came easy, just because it’s almost impossible to see it all in one go!

    • The Lady

      Thank you! It’s a beautiful museum with a great collection indeed!

  4. jeanine

    Wonderful account for visiting this museum it’s a wonder selection of art also…I love this review thank you

    • The Lady

      Thank you! It’s a personal selection, but it has some super common best-off as well 🙂

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