The Hermitage of the Vera Cruz de Maderuelo
unknown artist, 12th century, Prado Museum
This is definitely the best place to start your visit to the Prado Museum, to directly immerse yourself in the history of artistic representation. This wall belonged to a small hermitage in Segovia, a city 100 miles from Madrid. Its fresco paintings were transferred to canvas in 1947 and brought to the Prado Museum, where they were displayed in faithful imitation of the original layout, so visitors can walk amidst it. Of course, the theme depicted is unoriginal for its time — after all, we’re talking about the 12th century here. However, its religious scenes — the creation of Adam, the original sin, Mary Magdalene, etc.— are very interesting when viewed through the lens of perspective. Its fairly crude perspective provides a starting reference for the progressive refinement of perspective by painters in the subsequent centuries, and it should be kept in mind as you progress through the rest of the gorgeous works in this museum.
Table of the Seven Deadly Sins
Hieronymus Bosch, 1505-1510, Prado Museum
One of the artistic jewels of Madrid — and the world — is The Garden of Earthly Delights, a magnificent and still-mysterious work by Dutchman Hieronymus Bosch. However, in the very same room where his famous triptych lies, there are several more of his works that are worth focusing on. One of them is the Table of the Seven Deadly Sins, dominated by Jesus Christ, in a central circle, warning of his constant vigilance. Around him, there are several scenes of sin: lust, gluttony, sloth, etc., are everywhere, and they reflect eternal punishment. Of course, this punishment takes place in hell, and for those who can’t take a hint, there’s also an image of hell on the table, with all those sinful souls receiving their just deserts — everlasting torment. The table is both a marvelous artwork and a creepy piece of furniture — who could really enjoy brunch with so much guilt?
Diego Velázquez, 1655 – 1660, Prado Museum
If there is any must-see when visiting Madrid’s museums, this is definitely it. Diego Velázquez had a good job and universal recognition as an artist, since he worked as the royal family’s official painter. Despite the heavy responsibilities and strict constraints of such a position, his creativity flourished. Las Meninas is a good example of this — instead of merely painting a typical family portrait, Velazquez added touches of the bizarre. The painter himself appears on the left of the work, in the midst of painting Princess Margarita (in the middle), interrupted by the arrival of the king and queen (in the mirror), while one of the several servants or ‘meninas’ uses that precious moment to offer a drink to the princess, no doubt thirsty after posing for such a long time. First, the quotidian is key here, since the people depicted are taking a break and thus relaxed, with unusual stances. Second, Velázquez was very bold, painting himself alongside the king and queen — as much as he could, since he’s technically alongside the reflection of the monarchs. Lastly, the characters are looking at us — in the conceit of the painting, at the king and queen — seeming to break the fourth wall. This is one of the most oft-studied works in the history of art, still mysterious, and definitely one of those masterpieces that should be seen at least once in a lifetime.
Miguel Cabrera, 1775-1800, Museum of the Americas
In addition to all the other Spanish atrocities during the colonization of the Americas, they established a system based on the so-called castas, which codified ethnic inequality — of course, white people were at the top of this racist hierarchy. This system was thoroughly represented in art, even leading to the creation of a new genre called pintura de castas. The Mexican Miguel Cabrera was one of the main artists to depict this system, and the Museum of the Americas houses many of his paintings. This racial classification is thus much in evidence, and it is certainly very interesting to view because it shows clearly how race is an arbitrary concept to impose social superiority. The system shown in the paintings is often ridiculous to the point of laughter, with racial categories bearing names like “wolf,” “floating in mid-air,” and “throwback.”
The Drowning Dog
Francisco Goya, 1820 – 1823, Prado Museum
This magnificent work is part of the fourteen Black Paintings which Goya produced during the final years of his life. Practically deaf and holed up in his house in Madrid, he painted a series of works on the very walls of his house. These were later transferred to canvas by a banker who, not finding any buyers, donated them to the Prado Museum. These paintings depicted powerful and horrible human feelings, like anguish, fear, and despair, a far cry from his previous trite neoclassicism, leading him through a carnival of horrors and, at the same time, amazing, groundbreaking creativity. The Drowning Dog is not only strikingly beautiful, but it is probably the most interesting work in the series from a historical perspective — painted in the early 1820s with such lack of perspective and detail, it’s a harbinger of styles which wouldn’t arrive for nearly another century, like impressionism and abstraction. The poor dog is trapped in the sand, trying to escape that terrible fate of drowning. Other gorgeous Black Paintings, like Fight with Cudgels, are in the same room in the museum.
Mata Mua (In Olden Times)
Paul Gauguin, 1892, Thyssen Museum
Paul Gauguin had several exhibitions when he was alive, but his work found its true audience after his death — in fact, in 2015, one of his works was bought for $300 million, becoming the most expensive painting ever sold. Both this painting and Mata Mua are part of his body of work from when he lived in Tahiti, his most characteristic works. Gauguin went to Tahiti to flee modern civilization, but he didn’t find the primitive society he had dreamed of, since French Polynesia had more colonial influence than he had expected. Still, the artist fell In love with the island and created works that mix reality and fantasy, western and eastern concepts, modernity and primitivity, creating an extremely interesting document of life in Tahiti. He also gave Tahitian names to his paintings — though sometimes not 100% correct, admittedly. In Mata Mua, Gauguin depicts an impossible yet captivating and dreamily colorful landscape, with idyllic scenes of women playing music and dancing around an idol, idealizing the noble savage in the untouched paradise of “olden times.”
Photo Report of the Evolution of “Guernica”
Dora Maar, 1937, Reina Sofía Museum
Like many other photographers at that time, Dora Maar’s work was less valued than that of painters, since this new form of expression was considered a lower form of art. However, this French painter, sculptor, and photographer is nowadays considered one of the most outstanding artists in the 20th century. Among many other things, she photographed the development of one of the most popular modern works in Madrid, Picasso’s Guernica, a masterpiece depicting the horror of war. It’s really interesting to turn around when seeing that painting, since Maar’s photographic documentation of the work, which she did between May 11th and June 4th, 1937, is truly impressive. Given the lack of light in the studio and the immensity of Guernica, she had to retouch every photo to make it perfect, and due to this, nowadays we can see all the changes, modifications, additions, and elimination the Spanish painter made. More of Maar’s works can be seen in the Reina Sofía Museum, great photographs with very high contrast of quotidian street scenes.
Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening
Salvador Dalí, 1944, Thyssen Museum
When eccentrical Salvador Dalí met Gala for the first time, his world collapsed, and the focus of his paintings turned almost exclusively to her. She soon divorced her first husband and married Dalí, becoming his muse for life. Of all the paintings starring the eternal Russian muse, this is probably the most interesting, because of the mixed feelings it inspires (and definitely the one with the most charming title). One feels a certain peace at first glance, due to the colors and the balance of the work. However, upon closer look, the calm shatters — the violence disturbing Gala’s serene and deep dream is simply breathtaking, with the cold-looking stone over which she’s lying naked, a shotgun touching her skin, and two tigers striving to reach her while one of them is eaten by a fish. An elephant with impossible legs and a bee flying around a pomegranate make the scene even more disturbing. Is she dreaming about those strange things, or they are happening around her? That’s open to interpretation — this is surrealism in its pure state!
Know Your Servant #1
Martha Rosler, 1976, Reina Sofía Museum
The work of American conceptual artist Martha Rosler focuses on social and political themes. Through different forms of expression, such as video, photo and performance, she criticizes aspects of life, often quotidian, usually from a feminist perspective. In the series Know your Servant #1, Rosler combines text and photography — something that has grown increasingly common since the beginning of the 20th century, and ever present in conceptual art — to sarcastically discuss American waitresses and the physical and behavioral requirements they must follow to be perfect menials. She uses an old drawing of a perfectly beautiful waitress to present the instructions, like “stocking free of wrinkles,” “make up simple” and “nails manicured.” There are more documents with rules and instructions, in a serious, believable tone, and pictures of waitresses (and of a male client staring at one of them), creating a profound, pointed criticism.
Marina Abramovic and Ulay, 1978, Reina Sofía Museum
Serbian Marina Abramovic is the most important performance artist of all time. In the late ’70s and the ’80s, she had a turbulent relationship with German artist Ulay, and they did many performative works together before breaking up in a very poetic way — they walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, met in the middle and said goodbye. While together, they recorded and photographed themselves in very extreme situations, both physically and emotionally. The performance video of AAA-AAA starts with Abramovic explaining the action: “We are facing each other both producing continuous vocal sound, we slowly build up the tension, our faces coming closer together until we are screaming into each other’s open mouths.” That’s exactly what they do, in a 9-minute-long sequence where tension is slowly built up until it reaches a level that is truly hard to watch, because of the powerful feelings that are aroused — feelings that bring us closer to the purity of life and art.
Information about museums in Madrid
Prado Museum Tickets and Hours
Admission: Adults €16, Visitors aged 18 and under (25 and under if students) – free. Free every day from 6 pm to 8 pm and Sundays and holidays from 5 pm to 7 pm
Opening hours: Daily 10 am – 8 pm, Sundays and holidays 5 pm – 7 pm
Address: Paseo del Prado, s/n 28014 Madrid – Spain
Metro: 1 (Atocha), 2 (Banco de España)
Train: all lines (Atocha)
Bus: 9, 10, 14, 19, 27, 34, 37 and 45
Museum of the Americas Tickets and Hours
Admission: Adults €3, Visitors aged 18 and under and students – free. Free on Sunday
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9.30 am – 3 pm, Thursday 9.30 am – 7 pm, Saturday and holiday 10 am – 3 pm. Closed on Monday
Address: Av. de los Reyes Católicos, 6 28040 Madrid – Spain
Metro: 3 (Moncloa), 6 (Moncloa), 7 (Islas Filipinas)
Bus: 1, 2, 16, 44, 46, 61, 82, 113, 132 and 133
Thyssen Museum Tickets and Hours
Admission: Adults €12, Visitors aged 12 and under – free. Free every Monday from 12 pm to 4 pm
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am – 7 pm, Mondays 12 pm – 4 pm
Address: Paseo del Prado, 8 28014 Madrid – Spain
Metro: 2 (Banco de España)
Train: all lines (Atocha), C-1, C-2, C-7, C-8 and C-10 (Recoletos)
Bus: 1, 2, 5, 9, 10, 14, 15, 20, 27, 34, 37, 41, 51, 52, 53, 74, 146 and 150
Reina Sofía Museum Tickets and Hours
Admission: Adults €8, Visitors aged 18 and under (25 and under if students) – free. Free every day from 7 pm to 9 pm and Sundays and holidays from 1.30 pm to 7 pm
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 10 am – 9 pm, Sunday 10 am – 7 pm (no all collections on view). Closed on Tuesday
Address: Calle de Santa Isabel, 52 28012 Madrid – Spain
Metro: 1 (Atocha), 3 (Lavapiés)
Train: all lines (Atocha)
Bus: 6, 10, 14, 19, 26, 27, 32, 34, 36, 37, 41, 45, 59, 85, 86, 102, 119, C1, C2 and E1