A Solo Day with the Masters: The Prado Museum

Joachim Patinir's Crossing the River Styx

If a museum is doing its job, there is something unique that happens to an even mildly interested visitor: an impression is made. There are some characteristics that remain constant in most iconic European museums.  You will find sustained exposure to life-sized paintings of historic dramas, of landscapes and humans in the throes of death, or jubilation, or stoic stares and straight postures of exaggerated nobility. You will be bored and momentarily fascinated. There will be too much religious fervor, an overload of admiration for royal families and warriors.  And there will be plenty of renditions of myth, and probably a statue with missing arms and a broken-off nose somewhere.   But if an observer is truly looking, these images stick, and swirl around in the memory, especially at the time of night before dreams form, as sleep approaches, with the aching feet of a hard-working tourist. When walking among any formidable collection of art, there are always scenes of falling angels, serpents, beams of light coming through clouds, or pale skinned martyrs, prostrate, with bleeding sword-wounds, and soldiers smiling awkwardly on horseback as a battle rages in the background.  But often these are pieces of art that are relevant and effective, even today, and the accessibility to such treasures is one of the many gifts that a city can offer, a gift that is easily forgotten in the daily routines of an expatriate slowly growing more comfortable in a new place.

Witches Flight by Goya. Official submission in my "Coolest Paintings Ever" contest.

My first impression inside the Prado Museum, after walking past the over-packed gift shop full of ragged tourists holding bags of obligatory souvenirs, was a painting by Jusepe de Ribera, from 1612, of Saint Bartholomew holding a flaying knife and a large piece of his own skin, staring at passersby with the determined stare of any respectable martyr.  One thing does happen in museums of an abundance of historic religious works like this; whatever one really thinks or believes about Biblical stories, they take on new life, if not validity, when shown in such renditions of quality and showcased in a collection that spans such a large part of human history. Sometimes the motivation of the painters is obvious, paying the bills for example (one must wonder if Goya really enjoyed painting all those portraits of royalty, over and over again), or religious conviction, with glowing Christs and apostles with halos.  Some painters were paid specifically to be history painters, depicting scenes of past importance (real or fictitious) or court portraitists, commissioned to preserve royal names forever on canvas.  Sometimes the artist’s legacy is riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies, like that of El Greco (and therefore more interesting).  But for whatever the reason, throughout the Prado Museum these works seem to launch an attack, forcing the observer to partake in the scene, with their perfectly rendered facial expressions, dark and hellish backgrounds, warm suns and soft clouds, and exquisite detail.  One almost forgets about the perfected technicalities, like shadowing, lines, proportion, and balance.

A slightly irritated St. Bartholomew, apparently aware of his future.

Some painters, like Ribera and Raphael, had the impossible ability to paint eyes that seem to be full of life and truly looking, without that robotic stare of most human renderings, like in CGI or in paintings of lesser artists of realism.  In Ribera’s La Resurrección de Lázaro (1616), Lazarus appears as completely dead, surprised and immensely grateful at the same time.  I stood in front of this painting, for an unnatural amount of time, and pondered the difficulty of expressing these three disparate human conditions in one face. Also, Jesus Christ is shown with piercing eyes and a convincing air of superiority and calm, even without the surrounding crowd of scandalized, fumbling men and women, trying to rationalize the event with their limited intellectual reach.  The scene leaves an impression that is more genuine and effective than, say, the obvious and contrived cinematic violence regurgitated from Mel Gibson’s Catholic zeal.  It is Ribera’s consistent concentration on the human figure, contorted, wrinkled, pale-white, bleeding, along with the darkness of the background, that forces on the observer the emotion of the subjects, whether it’s panic or confusion, adoration or anger, desperation or happiness.   Goya’s dark surroundings and the candle-lit glow of his subjects are also famous partly for this reason.

Ribera's La Resurrección de Lázaro

I like to lean in close to a painting and look at the small brush strokes and cracks of the dried paint;  I seem to connect with the artist as I imagine the moment of the brush touching canvas. Looking at a painting in such a myopic way, and then stepping back slowly, once can see the grandeur of it, especially if it is full of an impossible amount of detail. Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and Table of Seven Deadly Sins are reminiscent of Dalí, of course, but they are so original and graphic that they never fail to elicit fear, pleasure and guilt simultaneously.  The images are terrifying and soothing, disturbing and comforting, but never boring, often tapping into our latent voyeur.

Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, showing a healthy variety of human experience.

Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death and A Hunt in Honor of Carlos V at Torgau Castle by German artist Lucas Cranach are excellent examples of highly detailed art that deserves an over-sized canvas and more than a passing glance.

Cranach, Lucas. A hunt in the honor of Carlos V at Torgau Castle.

At times, the repetition and detail seem to serve as blatant exaggeration to prove a point, as in Cranach’s painting, which is basically a bunch of privileged white dudes shooting things in the yard with crossbows (or perhaps it is a demonstration of the arrogance and lack of restraint of powerful people, even over nature), but the sheer density of the events and their complexity are often too fascinating to resist.  Bosch’s other paintings, to me, are more fascinating the more disturbing and bizarre they get.  Especially after a what can seem in this museum like a catacomb of gold-laced thrones, ostentatious robes of holy men, strutting soldiers, and bland landscapes, Bosch’s convoluted and catastrophic scenes are just freakin’ cool.

But landscapes have always been of interest to me, in photography and painting, and particularly those reflecting the isolation of man and vastness of nature, or those depicting a tranquil scene of simplicity and quietness, or even those showing the bustle of humanity in a wide view.  Virgil’s solitary trip in a boat across the River Styx, The Parasol by Goya, or View of a Port by Paul Bril are some of my favorite examples.

A View of the Port by Paul Bril

At the end of my self-guided tour, (I scowled at the herds of lobotomized cattle-like tourists, with their ear pieces oozing way too much chatter to possibly retain, content in their proper museum experience), my feet aching from a half-day of wandering lost through the halls, I found the Greek Archaic and Hellenistic sculptures, and I could not muster any interest in their existence.  Saturn, Danäe and Pylades will have to wait for another day.  Besides, the last painting that left an impression on me made me thirsty. Titian’s Bacchanal of the Adrians is a snapshot of what looks like one hell of a party.  Naturally, the center of the debauchery is the wine, pictured in the middle, so obviously outlined, that it almost takes away attention from the naked people rolling around in reckless abandon.  Apart from the dwarf and the tragic man-to-woman ratio, this scene shows that Bacchus knew how to get down, and it demonstrates the unrestrained chaos of mankind’s carnal exploration and absence of self-consciousness. But it also brings with it fear of impending judgement and rectification, making it all the more interesting.

As I walked out of the building into the bright sun, I thought I felt a slight fall chill in the air, and I realized I hadn’t taken any pictures.  I also realized that I hadn’t compulsively checked my cell phone for no reason, and I forgot to think about things like my future, love, and my bank account.  I sat in the grass and watched an old bearded man hand-feeding sparrows and he was asking for money from passing tourists.  There was another man drawing caricatures and one playing the Godfather theme on the violin.  The whole scene was such a ridiculous cliché, that if I hadn’t just hung out with Velásquez, Ribera and Hieronymus Bosch, I’d have allowed my bad mood to frame my day as a complete waste of time.  So with the impressions of masters that have affected so many for the last 400 years fresh in my mind, it was time to reflect and tilt back one or more glasses of wine, perhaps at the bottom of which my own Ariadne will appear.

Titian's Bacchanal of the Adrians (1522-1524)

Visit the Museo del Prado for current information on temporary exhibitions, permanent collections and hours.

2 thoughts on “A Solo Day with the Masters: The Prado Museum

  1. Thanks, Emma. I wasn’t in the mood to go to a museum, but I went in anyway. I always go to things like that alone, in the same way I read a book alone.
    Thanks for the compliments again, (not sure any of it is deserved though).

  2. Shawn, as usual, a fantastically written post. My visit to the Prado was, I’m sad to say, the let-down I’d expected. I don’t really “do” art – as in, I just don’t get it! There were maybe four pieces in the whole place which held my attention for more than a second and even now, I can’t remember what they were. I was glad to see you didn’t even mention Guernica, in my opinion the biggest waste of space to ever have such a large space wasted on it.

    But your post made me think I was missing something – maybe I went in with the wrong mindset, maybe there were too many people there, maybe too few, maybe I should have gone alone, maybe I just picked the wrong day. Whatever it was, it didn’t do for me what it did for you and even if it had, I couldn’t have even begun to write it up this way.

    Keep writing. It gives the rest of us something to aim for!

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