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Five Must See Masterpieces at the Museo del Prado

Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week’s post is another post in the Museum Masterpieces series! It will be focusing on the Museo del Prado, the national art museum of Spain! The Prado, as it’s commonly known, has one of the best collections of European art dating from the 12th - 20th centuries. These are only five pieces from their magnificent collections, but they represent some of the greatness held within!



The foundation of the Prado’s collection is formed by the Spanish Royal collection. The Habsburgs and Bourbon dynasties were avid art enthusiasts and hosted many of the greatest names in their court. Today, the collection boasts 8,200 drawings, 7,600 paintings, 4,800 prints, and 1,000 sculptures. This draws about 2.8 million visitors to the museum each year, making it the most popular museum in Spain and the 18th most visited in the world.

The Museo del Prado was designed by architect Juan de Villanueva in 1785 on the orders of King Charles III of Spain. His goal was to build a national history cabinet to celebrate Spain’s past. However, this did not happen. Instead, Charles’ grandson

told his wife, Queen Maria Isabel de Braganza to use the space to create a museum of the Spanish Royal painting and sculpture collection. The Prado opened to the public for the first time in November 1819. Today it forms Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art along with the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum and Museo Reina Sofia


Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez

The first work of this list is Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, one of the best examples of Spanish Golden Age art. It is often considered the high point of Prado's collection. Painted in 1656, it depicts Velázquez painting a canvas that is turned away from our view. The Spanish infanta (princess) Margarita is front and center, surrounded by her attendants. In fact, these attendants are where the painting gets its name from: Las Meninas is Spanish for “ladies in waiting”. In the background, there is a mirror reflecting the image of Margarita’s parents, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana.

What makes this painting so remarkable is the intimate, conversational view it offers. It almost breaks the fourth wall between the viewer and the painting. They are not only invited into the space, but, through eye contact with Velázquez and the princess, they are encouraged to participate. The viewer is allowed into a normally restricted place with nearly all formality stripped away.

In addition, this work can be considered a visual resume for Velázquez. In the 17th century, the position of court painter was the highest one available to an artist. He uses this work to showcase his talents in portraiture, perspective, and composition. It is almost as if Velázquez is trying to prove that he was worthy of such a lofty and important title.

The Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych painted by Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch between 1490-1510. This painting is one of the strangest in art history. Not only is the intent behind the painting unknown, but there are some crazy details! There are a few biblical scenes, for example, the joining of Adam and Eve on the left panel. However, the fantastical elements are far more prevalent.

The center panel is where the triptych gets its name. Bosch painted a beautiful garden scene filled with fascinating figures. There are creatures, both real and imaginary, enjoying paradise. Dozens of nude figures frolic, copulate, and relax all over the garden. It is a scene filled with nothing but pleasure.

The right panel of this triptych could only be described as downright terrifying. It appears to take place in hell, with flames spurting out of the top of the frame. Human bodies and body parts are twisted and distorted in a freakish way. A giant bird even eats people! It is a jarring contrast to the other two panels.

As mentioned before, the true meaning behind this painting is unknown to art historians. There is also little known about Bosch’s life, so it is nearly impossible to get any clues from that. Theories range from a warning against the sins of the flesh on one end of the spectrum to a celebration of sexuality on the other. Regardless of what it actually means, this work is a fascinating piece.

The Naked and Clothed Maja

Technically, this next entry is made of two separate pieces. However, they depict the same subject and were intended to be shown as a pair, so I’m counting them as one masterpiece. Known as the Naked Maja and Clothed Maja, they were painted between 1797-1800 by Francisco Goya. The same woman is featured in both works. In one, she confidently reclines in the nude on a chair with pillows. Her eyes hold the viewers, almost daring them to look away. The second work is nearly identical, the only difference is the fact that she is wearing clothes. In fact, this is how the woman came to be identified as a maja. Her outfit is a traditional costume associated with this social class. Art historians believe that the sitter was the mistress of the man who commissioned the work, a woman named Pepita Tudó.

These paintings were commissioned by Manuel Godoy, the Prime Minister of Spain. He had a secret collection of nude paintings and used the clothed version to cover it up. Unfortunately, the Inquisition caught wind of this. They put Godoy, Goya, and the curator of the collection on trial for obscene material. Thankfully, Goya was able to get off without punishment. He argued that he was inspired by Titian's Danae and Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus. These were two artists that were greatly admired in Spain. So, the Inquisition allowed him to continue to work in the country.

The Three Graces by Peter Paul Rubens

In Greek mythology, the Three Graces were daughters of Zeus. Their names were Aglaia, Euphrosine, and Thalia. They were virgins and served the gods at banquets. At other times, they were attendants of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Rubens painted them in this work, dating from 1630-35. It was a personal piece and was found in his collection after his death. This is most likely because the left most grace is a portrait of his wife Helene.

It is clear that Rubens was inspired by classical sculpture. Firstly, the three women are painted nude and their bodies are in a contrapposto pose. Although they have the traditional voluptuous Rubenesque figures, their skin is white and clear like marble. However, unlike classical sculpture, there is a sense of movement. It is clear that the graces are dancing in a circle and it seems like they were frozen mid step. Rubens painted this as a testament to the love that Helene brought into his life and it shows.

The Annunciation - Fra Angelico

Once gracing the monastery of Santo Domenico in Fiesole (a town near Florence), the Annunciation by Fra Angelico now hangs in the Prado. He painted it around 1426. Around this time, the medieval, Gothic style was on the wane while the Renaissance was on the rise. Fra Angelico mixes them both flawlessly in this work, especially when it comes to the naturalistic elements.

On the left side of the painting, the viewer can see Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden. They are surrounded by beautiful plants, but their faces are filled with shame. Both are wearing clothes, a sign that they ate from the Forbidden Tree and realized their nakedness. An angel pushes them along, making sure they leave paradise forever.

The majority of this painting is taken up by the Annunciation scene. The archangel Gabriel bows to the Virgin Mary as he gives her the news that she will be the mother of the son of God. Fra Angelico sticks with a Byzantine/gothic style for the angel. His wings are heavy and dark, while the halo around his head is prominent. Mary is also painted in a similar style as she bends forward in reverence. However, unlike gothic art, there is a weight and three dimensionality to the figures. It is a beautiful example of how artistic style transitioned during this period.


The Museo del Prado is an incredible testament to the rich history of European art. Remember, these are only five of the amazing works in their collection. Their website, excitingly, has excellent images where you can zoom in on details, so I highly recommend you check it out! They are all linked in the sources section below!


Image List

  1. Museo del Prado. CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  2. Portrait of King Ferdinand VII by Vicente López Portaña, 1814–1815. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  3. Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, 1656. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  4. The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490 - 1510. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  5. Naked and Clothed Majas. Francisco Goya, 1797–1800. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  6. The Three Graces, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630–35. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

  7. The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, c. 1435. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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