The Prado

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, bet. 1480 – 1505, 86.6in x 153.5in.

The Prado. This was the last big museum we saw on our Europe trip. And what a visit – this was probably our favourite of them all. No line to get in, a deal on the guidebook with entry, and best of all – no photography whatsoever. What you get is small quiet groups enjoying some of the most important, most gorgeous, paintings ever made. Despite it’s status in the history of art, I walked right up to the Garden of Earthly Delights, where there were about five people collectively having their minds blown. What an incredible painting. It’s a synthesis of technique and imagination like nothing else. It goes on and on in detail and must be seen in the real to be fully appreciated. It’s really big. With the doors closed, there is a bleak, grey landscape within a globe, floating before a void. It gives no promise of what’s inside. What a staggering sight it must have been the first time they opened it.

Oh yeah, they have other good paintings there. You know, like Velásquez or whatever. Goya is sure an interesting case. He made some excellent portraits early on in his career (academic but also sensitive) and takes the award for the best painting of diaphanous dresses ever if you ask me. He carries on to paint the royal family as oddly plain, a shocking nude and the horrors of war, before descending into the black paintings. He was continually inventive through his career – something that makes his work captivating to contemporary viewers. To see it here in bulk was a privilege.

Just a little comment on the Majas – they both look like the head has been painted from one person, and stuck on top of the body of another. It’s pretty awkward actually. So if it really was Pepita Tudó who was the model, then who knows – possibly the body was someone else’s altogether.

Spain was lucky to get two monsters of art and have their work in one place. All the Velásquez rooms one after the other really impress their scale on you. I don’t mean the rooms or just large paintings. I mean the scale of his painting career. There is a straightforward portrait of Philip in which you can almost see a fading empire. Am I looking at it through the lens of history? Certainly. But you can’t help but see a lost melancholy in his long face. Velásquez’s painting, of course, is first order throughout.

The Prado is somewhat unique of all the large museums, in that basically all the paintings came from the royal collection. It therefore reflects the artistic interests of each generation of Spanish royalty. And so you discover a large number of early Flemish oil painting there. Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent From the Cross was another highlight for me. The colour in the painting is stunning. It was commissioned by an archery guild (what a foreign concept that is) and so there are repeated crossbow shapes in the painting. Jesus looks like a crossbow, and it’s the same with Mary as she passes out and Mary Magdalene crying on the right. It’s a totally “constructed” painting, but because everything in it has been treated the same way, and the composition is so well designed, it’s seamless. The folds on Mary’s dress are achingly beautiful.

One last little comment about photography in the museum. I saw a guy taking a photo of a painting (without flash even) and the guard came over and actually made him erase it from his camera. A thankless job, but impressive to watch.


About Ben Williamson

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