The Prado Museum contains the world’s greatest assembly of Spanish painting – especially works by Velázquez and Goya – ranging from the 12th to 19th centuries. It also houses impressive foreign collections, particularly of Italian and Flemish works. The Neo-Classical building was designed in 1785 by Juan de Villanueva on the orders of Carlos III, and it opened as a museum in 1819. The Spanish architect Rafael Moneo has constructed a new building, over the adjacent church’s cloister, where the temporary exhibitions are located. The Casón del Buen Retiro, now an art school, can be visited occasionally, on weekends.
Atocha, Banco de España.
10, 14, 19, 27, 34, 37, 45.
9am–8pm Tue–Sun & public hols.
1 Jan, Good Fri, 1 May, 25 Dec.
(free 6–8pm Tue–Sat, 5–8pm Sun).
Façade of Museo del Prado
The museum’s permanent collection is chronologically arranged over three main floors. Classical sculpture is on the ground floor, Velázquez on the first floor, and the extensive Goya collection across all three floors. The permanent collection is accessed via the Velázquez and Goya entrances. Visitors to the temporary exhibitions should use the Jerónimos entrance.
The Jerónimos Building houses temporary exhibitions and Renaissance sculptures, as well as a shop, restaurant, café, auditorium and cloakroom. In the future the Salón de Reinos will also become part of the Prado.
The importance of the Prado is founded on its royal collections. The wealth of foreign art, including many of Europe’s finest works, reflects the historical power of the Spanish crown. The Low Countries and parts of Italy were under Spanish domination for centuries. The 18th century was an era of French influence, following the Bourbon accession to the Spanish throne. The Prado is worthy of repeated visits, but if you go only once, see the Spanish works of the 17th century.
Right up to the 19th century, Spanish painting focused on religious and royal themes. Although the limited subject matter was in some ways a restriction, it also offered a sharp focus that seems to have suited Spanish painters.
Spain’s early medieval art is represented somewhat sketchily in the Prado, but there are some examples, such as the anonymous mural paintings from the Holy Cross hermitage in Maderuelo, which show a Romanesque heaviness of line and forceful characterization.
Spanish Gothic art can be seen in the Prado in the works of Bartolomé Bermejo and Fernando Gallego. The sense of realism in their paintings was borrowed from Flemish masters of the time.
Renaissance features began to emerge in the works of painters such as Pedro de Berruguete, whose Auto-de-fé is both chilling and lively. St Catherine , by Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, shows the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, for whom Yáñez probably worked while training in Italy.
What is often considered as a truly Spanish style – with its highly-wrought emotion and deepening sombreness – first started to emerge in the 16th century in the paintings of the Mannerists. This is evident in Pedro Machuca’s fierce Descent from the Cross and in the Madonnas of Luis de Morales, “the Divine”. The elongation of the human figure in Morales’ work is carried to a greater extreme by Domenikos Theotocopoulos, who is better known as El Greco. Although many of his master pieces remain in his adopted town of Toledo, the Prado has an impressive collection, including The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest .
The Golden Age of the 17th century was a productive time for Spanish art. José de Ribera, who lived in (Spanish) Naples, followed Caravaggio in combining realism of character with the techniques of chiaroscuro (use of light and dark) and tenebrism (large areas of dark colours, with a shaft of light). Another master who used this method was Francisco Ribalta, whose Christ Embracing St Bernard is here. Zurbarán, known for still lifes and portraits of saints and monks, is also represented in the Prado.
This period, however, is best represented by the work of Diego de Velázquez. As Spain’s leading court painter from his late twenties until his death, he produced scenes of heightened realism, royal portraits, and religious and mythological paintings. Examples of his art are displayed in the Prado. His greatest work is perhaps Las Meninas , in Room 12.
Another great Spanish painter, Goya, revived Spanish art in the 18th century. He first specialized in cartoons for tapestries, then became a court painter. His work went on to embrace the horrors of war, as seen in The 3rd of May in Madrid , and culminated in a sombre series known as The Black Paintings .
Spain’s long connection with the Low Countries naturally resulted in an intense admiration for the so-called Flemish primitives. Many exceptional examples of Flemish and Dutch art now hang in the Prado. St Barbara , by Robert Campin, has a quirky intimacy, while Rogier van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross is an unquestioned masterpiece. Most notable of all, however, are Hieronymus Bosch’s weird and eloquent inventions. The Prado has some of his major paintings, including the Temptation of St Anthony and The Haywain . Works from the 16th century include the Triumph of Death by Brueghel the Elder. There are nearly 100 canvases by the 17th-century Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, including The Adoration of the Magi . The most notable Dutch painting on display is Rembrandt’s Artemisia , a portrait of the artist’s wife. Other Flemish and Dutch artists featured at the Prado are Antonis Moor, Anton Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens, considered one of the finest portrait painters of the 17th century.
The Prado is the envy of many museums, not least for its vast collection of Italian paintings. Botticelli’s dramatic wooden panels telling The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti , a vision of a knight forever condemned to hunt down and kill his own beloved, were commissioned by two rich Florentine families and are a sinister high point.
Raphael contributes the superb Christ Falls on the Way to Calvary and the sentimental The Holy Family of the Lamb . Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet , an early work by Tintoretto, is a profound masterpiece and reveals the painter’s brilliant handling of perspective.
Caravaggio had a profound impact on Spanish artists, who admired his characteristic handling of light, as seen in David Victorious over Goliath . Venetian masters Veronese and Titian are also very well represented. Titian served as court painter to Charles V, and few works express the drama of Habsburg rule so deeply as his sombre painting The Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg . Also on display are works by Giordano and Tiepolo, the master of Italian Rococo, who painted The Immaculate Conception as part of a series intended for a church in Aranjuez.
Marriages between French and Spanish royalty in the 17th century, culminating in the Bourbon accession to the throne in the 18th century, brought French art to Spain. The Prado has eight works attributed to Poussin, among them his serene St Cecilia and Landscape with St Jerome . The magnificent Landscape with the Embarkation of St Paula Romana at Ostia is the best work here by Claude Lorrain. Among the 18th-century artists featured are Antoine Watteau and Jean Ranc. Felipe V is the work of the royal portraitist Louis-Michel van Loo.
Although German art is not especially well represented in the Prado, there are a number of paintings by Albrecht Dürer, including his classical depictions of Adam and Eve. His lively Self-Portrait of 1498, painted at the age of 26, is undoubtedly the highlight of the small but valuable German collection in the museum. Lucas Cranach is also featured and works by the late 18th-century painter Anton Raffael Mengs include some magnificent portraits of Carlos III.