Jan Dalley’s guide to the Prado museum in Madrid

This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to Madrid

The Prado, in Madrid, is one of the world’s mega-museums in the depth and richness of its collections. Based almost entirely on the collections of the Spanish monarchs, from the astute Philip II onwards, its peerless holdings of the Spanish masters — Goya, El Greco, Velázquez and others — are reinforced by great international names of the 17th and 18th centuries especially, many of them direct commissions. The greatest hits are many — “Las Meninas”, “The Naked Maja”, “The Three Graces” and more. But how, in a single visit of a few hours, can we avoid the crowds and find some out-of-the-way highlights? This is a list of my own top picks, in an order that makes sense to me: starting with the medieval, moving into the core of the collection and ending with the most modern and one of the most ancient. But I’m assuming that you’ll like to wander and find your own route. Here’s a choice that mixes famous works with the lesser known and tries to shape an experience that is pure Prado, yet purely personal.

The Neoclassical facade of Madrid’s Prado museum, with the branch of a tree in the foreground of the shot
‘One of the world’s mega-museums’: The Prado © Museo Nacional del Prado

1. ‘The Descent from the Cross’ (before 1443) by Rogier van der Weyden (Room 58)

Christ’s body being brought down from his crucifix in Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘The Descent from the Cross’
‘Trompe-I’oeil figures burst out of their panel’: Rogier van der Weyden’s ‘The Descent from the Cross’

The point of seeking a quiet route through busy museums is not necessarily to avoid all the greatest hits: that would be perverse. But be selective. In the Prado, I would never miss Rogier van der Weyden’s glorious “The Descent from the Cross” (before 1443) for sheer beauty and emotional impact. It is startlingly modern in its composition, with quasi-trompe-I’oeil figures bursting out of their wooden panel almost as if they were in 3D; they seem to be writhing in a stilled distress that reaches straight across the centuries.

2. ‘Saint Barbara’ (1438) by Robert Campin (Room 58)

Detail from ‘Saint Barbara’ by Robert Campin: a woman in a medieval drawing room in an olive-green dress, reading by the fire
Detail from ‘Saint Barbara’ by Robert Campin © Museo Nacional del Prado

Are there any female artists hanging in the Prado? I may have spotted two, out of the thousands of names. But female subjects are plenty, and I collect images of women reading. (You know what I mean by collect — not literally, I’m afraid.) After van der Weyden’s “The Descent from the Cross”, look to your left for a small panel on wood from 1438. It is “Saint Barbara” by the Flemish-School master Robert Campin. Tiny, jewel-like and finely depicted, she sits in a gorgeous olive-green dress, avidly absorbed in an illuminated text. The fire, the cushions, the trees through the window: here is a medieval domestic scene brought sharply to life, a sumptuous treat to savour slowly.

3. ‘Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi’ (c. 1494) by Hieronymus Bosch (Room 56A)

‘Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi’ by Hieronymus Bosch
‘An earthly delight’: Bosch’s ‘Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi’ © Museo Nacional del Prado

It would be crazy to come to the Prado and miss out on Hieronymus Bosch, despite the crowds. But turn your back on the prize exhibit, the great, acid-fuelled “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, and take in a smaller triptych, “The Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1494). Mary and a doll-like Jesus sit outside a wonky Hansel-and-Gretel shack, from which a chaotic, tipsily crowned figure half-emerges, having somehow mislaid his knickers; outside, a stately black Balthazar brings what looks like a miniature pink dragon as his gift. In the left-hand panel, Joseph (we think it is him) crouches over a meagre fire, drying the nappies. Yet despite the skippy, surreal Bosch moments, the piece overall is serene, dignified, almost solemn, every tiny detail painted with an almost otherworldly skill, an earthly delight.

4. ‘Self-Portrait’ (1815) by Francisco de Goya (Room 66)

Goya’s self-portrait of 1815
‘An image remembered?’: Goya painted this self-portrait at the age of 69 © Museo Nacional del Prado

Not surprisingly, the Prado’s collection of works by Goya is unparalleled. But it’s easy to tire of the stiff royals, the overdressed nobility and the naked saints. I prefer the works where his extraordinary humanity shines through, as in his penetrating self-portrait of 1815. In its style and piercing candour, you could mistake it for a Rembrandt. Although Goya was 69 at the time, he shows himself with brown hair and the face of a much younger man — an image remembered, perhaps — though the questioning gaze holds intimations of the troubled mind that produced some of the strangest and most potent images in this gallery; indeed, in western art.

5. The Black Paintings (1819-23) by Francisco de Goya (Room 67)

Goya’s ‘Saturn’: a wild-eyed male monster devouring a child
Goya’s ‘Saturn’ – one of the artist’s nightmarish ‘Black Paintings’ . . .
Goya’s ‘The Dog’: a dog drowning in a brown-yellow mud or quicksand
. . . which also includes ‘The Dog’ © Museo Nacional del Prado (2)

In Room 67 are Goya’s so-called “Black Paintings”, made towards the end of his life from 1820 to 1823 — terrifying and enigmatic pieces created for the walls of the artist’s country house, and possibly never intended to be publicly shown. Goya had made plenty of dark work, with unsparing visions of violence and death, but here the subject matter reaches peaks of poverty, disfigurement, terror and utter bleakness. And the sheer, shrieking grotesque: the most famous image here is of a bloody-mouthed Saturn (a rare dash of red in the monochrome series). An even more mysterious painting depicts only the head of an apparently drowning dog, eyes turned hopelessly upwards. It is hard to think of this magnificent spirit spending his final days surrounded by these creations of a tortured mind — but they are not to be missed.

6. ‘View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, Rome’ (1630) by Diego Velázquez (Room 11)

Velázquez’s ‘View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, Rome’
‘A quasi-Impressionistic freedom’: Velázquez’s ‘View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, Rome’ © Museo Nacional del Prado

Elsewhere, and much more joyously, an unexpected work by Velázquez caught my eye. Of course, there are scores to choose from in the Prado’s collection, but the unlikely and out-of-style pieces by the artists we think we know are always interesting. In 1629-30, Velázquez made a year-long trip to Italy, where the light and landscape wriggled on to his palette: this small “View of the Gardens of the Villa Medici, Rome” has a quasi-Impressionistic freedom that is a breath of air among the more formal offerings.

7. Landscape Quartet (1639-40) by Claude Lorrain (Room 2)

‘The Archangel Raphael and Tobias’ (1639–40) by Claude Lorrain
‘The Archangel Raphael and Tobias’ (1639–40) by Claude Lorrain © Museo Nacional del Prado
Lorrain’s ‘Landscape with the Burial of Saint Serapia’ (1639)
Lorrain’s ‘Landscape with the Burial of Saint Serapia’ (1639) © Museo Nacional del Prado
Lorrain’s ‘The Embarkation of Saint Paula’ (c. 1639)
Lorrain’s ‘The Embarkation of Saint Paula’ (c. 1639) © Museo Nacional del Prado
‘The Finding of Moses’ (1639–40) by Claude Lorrain
‘The Finding of Moses’ (1639–40) by Claude Lorrain © Museo Nacional del Prado

If the Italianate colourways in the Velázquez make a contrast to the deep Spanish blacks all around, so does a luminous quartet of classical landscapes, in an unusual vertical format, by Claude Lorrain. Commissioned for the Buen Retiro palace in 1639-40, these idealised visions of Italian landscapes are really exercises in light: a golden dawn gives way to midday, then a dusky evening. Just a bonne bouche.

8. Project for the Torre de la Parada (1636-38) by Peter Paul Rubens (Room 79)

‘Apollo and the Serpent Python’ (1636-37) by Peter Paul Rubens
‘Apollo and the Serpent Python’ (1636-37) by Peter Paul Rubens © Museo Nacional del Prado

Searching again for unusual work by the great masters, something that penetrates the perfect varnished surfaces and formal compositions and gives us an insight into their thinking, I was thrilled by a whole top-floor room devoted to a project made by Rubens. Philip IV commissioned the artist in 1636 to decorate the walls of his hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada, and Rubens created oil sketches of about 60 scenes. Some of the final works were carried out by him, some by other Antwerp artists, several are displayed here. The mood was clearly upbeat and the sex lives of the gods a big theme (life-sized, the beautiful boy Ganymede is carried off by a lascivious-looking eagle), but the range includes contemplation of life’s absurdities with a pair of philosophers — Heraclitus (miserable) and Democritus (thoroughly jovial).

9. ‘Boys on the Beach’ (1910) by Joaquín Sorolla (Room 60A)

Joaquín Sorolla’s ‘Boys on the Beach’ (1910)
Joaquín Sorolla’s ‘Boys on the Beach’ (1910) © Museo Nacional del Prado

After the intensity of the weighty 17th and 18th centuries on show here, it’s a palate-cleanser to move into a different mode. One of the most recent paintings here (the Prado’s collection ends before the Modern period, so this is an outlier) is Sorolla’s “Boys on the Beach”, with its carefree, light-filled view of three naked lads lying in the shallows as the sun streaks across their gleaming bodies. Sorolla has come to much wider notice in recent years, and he is important to Spain’s art story since he fills an odd gap: between Goya and Picasso, or perhaps better to say the brilliant trio of Picasso, Dalí and Miró, there was almost nothing of note in Spanish art, a strangely empty mid-19th century. But this is a cracker by any standards, very well worth seeing in the, er, flesh.

10. Mural paintings from the Hermitage of the Vera Cruz de Maderuelo (Room 51C)

A 12th-century fresco depicting Adam and Eve in Room 51C
A 12th-century fresco depicting Adam and Eve in Room 51C © Museo Nacional del Prado

Finally — but only if you like reverse chronology — a small wonder. In the medieval section is the reconstruction of the interior of a tiny Romanesque chapel, the hermitage of the True Cross in Maderuelo, Segovia. In a space not much bigger than most people’s bathroom, its vivid frescoes tell the Bible stories with wonderful colour and vigour: Adam and Eve, of course, a Nativity, a judgment, paradises both earthly and spiritual, some energetic angels and demons. The exteriors of such remote hermitages were utterly plain, easily mistaken for a barn: this is like lifting the lid on a jewel box, and sets the scene for the wonders of western religious art to come.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Paseo del Prado, 28014 Madrid

What are your Prado highlights? Tell us in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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