“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” ~Aristotle
The Museo del Prado located in the heart of Madrid, Spain and has always been a building dedicated to the arts. Thanks to the Spanish royal families of the 16th and 17th century, it boasts one of the most complete and abundant collection of paintings, particularly those of Spanish painters such as Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco. Several famous French and Italian paintings are also displayed here. As a matter of fact, some might argue that the Museo del Prado houses one, if not, the best collections of European art.
The building itself looks like it could be a miniature palace. Outside of the museum are the Royal Botanical Gardens founded by Ferdinand VI in 1755. Inside the garden are more statues, although not as abundant as in the museum itself.
If you are interested in yet another beautiful garden within the city, El Retiro is just up the hill. One of the most famous pieces in El Retiro is the fountain of the fallen angel, located exactly 666 feet above sea level. Once a private garden for the royal family, if was opened to the public in 1767 with very strict rules. For one, anyone entering the garden needed to smell nice and be clean, including their feet. Perhaps this mentality has carried on because today, it is very well kept and clean. Together, the museum and the gardens make for a full day of touring. Be prepared for the heat and line-ups; several hours to be exact. If you know in advance, you can purchase tickets online for 16 euros and save yourself a lot of time. Students and teachers have free entry to the botanical gardens with ID and the Retiro is free to all.
I can’t possible describe the 7.5 hours of walking we did to see the museum alone in its entirety (we saw the Retiro and botanical gardens on a separate day). What I can say is that the highlight was reading some of the fascinating stories and descriptions of some of the paintings. With each room, I felt like I was entering another story. I made a list of all my favourites but can’t possibly describe them all so I will share my top 5 paintings. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
What makes this painting great for me are the features of the people. They look very Spanish as this was likely painted in Toledo. Not much is known about Loarte himself except that he died at a young age. This painting shows his ambition and was his final piece before his death. It is a shame because he was in his prime and could have gone on to create many more masterpieces. The painting depicts a common scene that is similar to a present day European market. A young boy, likely well off based on his garments, pays a poultry vendor. In the scene you can see eggs as well as the kinds of game that are sold. It is a beautiful depiction of a common scene and that is where I find the beauty in this painting.
Ten–year-old Rafaela Flores Calderón is painted in the romantic style. Her delicate features and colours contrast the metal cage. She holds an African Grey parrot which she recently removed from the cage. Common at this time as a sign of social status was to paint people with their pets as they could afford exotic ones. This is a typical technique found in Andalusia. Her pretty outfit mimics a shorter version of what she will where as a woman and is complemented by the flowers in the background. The light colour of her dress makes her the focus of the portrait. Fun fact about this artist is that he lost his sight due to an illness and regained it 2 years prior to painting this portrait. Despite his loss of vision, it did not falter in the painting of a young Rafaela.
When I was baptised I was given the middle name Belle in honour of my patron saint who also goes by Isabel de Aragon. This painting was the first time I had seen her acknowledged in a painting. Her elegant dress shows the various textures of the cloth. Although Zurbarán’s technique is not as developed as some, he painted many religious paintings. As Isabel’s story goes, she lived in the 14th century. She was a beautiful, admired and giving person who gave constantly to those in need. One day her husband, the king, forbade her to give to charity but she continued anyways in secret. As she was leaving to give money to the poor, she was stopped. The money hidden in the folds of her dress had turned to flowers and so she was not punished for disobeying her husband. Her strength and her story come through clearly in this painting. The addition of the halo identifies her as a saint.
Unlike many religious paintings, Beuckelaer puts a refreshing twist on this painting which caught my attention. The focus is on the abundance of food being prepared in the kitchen. In the background is the actual focus which is Jesus’ visit. There is a lot of symbolism here and attention to detail. With many religious paintings there is a theme of looking after your spiritual self. This one reminds us that feeding the soul is important but taking care of your mortal body is also worth noting (based on the food and more materialistic things in the foregound). However, the story of Mary and Martha is constant and a reminder to not let material things like those in the foreground take over and to keep your spiritual values in the background. A great, symbolic piece.
This final piece that caught my attention is much different than the rest. At first glance I wondered what was happening. Once I read the story behind it I thought to myself, “Who comes up with these tales?” The story is of King Tereus who took advantage of his wife’s sister and then cut out her tongue so she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone. The sister had skills making tapestries and shared the story with her sister in that way. As revenge, Tereus’ wife killed their own son and served it to the king. Once he had finished eating, she revealed what she had done by presenting him with the head of their son. The story is dark and disturbing and left an impression. What the painting doesn’t reveal is what happened next. Before Tereus could kill the sisters, all three of them were transformed into birds by the Olympian gods. Tereus was turned into a Hoopoe which has a crown of feathers to represent his status. His wife, Procne, became a Nightingale whose song mourned the death of her son. The sister, Philomeia, became a Swallow which, because she had no tongue, could not sing like the bird she was transformed into.