Dispatches from Spain: Museo Nacional del Prado

Las Meninas. Los Borrachos. The Garden of Earthly Delights. The Triumph of Death. Vuelo de Brujas. The Dead Christ Supported by an Angel.

El Prado is a writers’ feast. The great and terrible themes that have obsessed humanity for thousands of years are all here in oil and stone: war, love, faith, power. It’s a stunning collection and an inspiration.

Of all the great masters here – Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Goya, Brueghel, and so on – the biggest revelation was Rubens. Most of what came before him looks stiff and dull when set next to his sinuous lines and pulchritudinous flesh. It’s like comparing black and white television to color. The historical/mythical works strike me as dazzling feats of painterly technique and vivid storytelling.

El Greco, too. He seems about three hundred years before his time. Those elongated limbs. The cartoon colors. If he’s not an expressionist three centuries before expressionism officially existed, I don’t know what he is.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

The piece I enjoyed the most was Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. The central panel of his triptych has been described as “an erotic derangement.” Sadomasochism abounds. Among those pretty colors – bright green, blue and pink – bestiality rules. The right panel is Dante’s Hell. A whiskered monster shoves humans into his mouth and defecates them intact into a hole. Green dogs feed on the intestines of a slain knight. And who is that enigmatic, pasty-faced fellow two-thirds of the way up, peering out at the viewer like the Mona Lisa? Some say it’s the devil. Others say it’s a self-portrait – Bosch in Hell.

Among the splendor of this vast museum, I also “discovered” artists and
überworks I’d never heard of or seen:

I couldn’t take my eyes off Goya’s Vuelo de Brujas (Flight of Witches). Three witches levitate while carrying a fourth figure, who’s either in a state of ecstasy or distress. Two bystanders below cover their ears and eyes, while a donkey (symbol of ignorance) wanders into the frame. What on earth does it mean? Freud would have had a field day with this painting; it contains sex, religion, horror, magic, and what appears to be a bit of bloodsucking. And it all takes place in a bare, bleak landscape straight out of a nightmare. I loved it.

Vuelo de Brujas by Francisco Goya

Francisco Ribalta’s painting of Christ embracing Saint Bernard also took my breath away. Bernard had dreamed Christ came down from the cross and embraced him. If Ribalta had painted nothing else here besides the folds in Saint Bernard’s cloak, I’d still have been entranced. The trompe l’oeuil is spectacular. And then you look at the visual rhyme of the hands of Christ and Saint Bernard . . .

Christ Embracing Saint Bernard by Francisco Ribalta

Were there any disappointments? Queuing for two hours was a drag, but hardly the museum’s fault. And I was hoping to see more Rembrandt. Throughout his life, Rembrandt painted self-portraits – his bulbous, plain features turning from youth to wearied old age – which capture the human condition in all its vicissitudes better than almost anything I’ve ever seen, heard or read, but there were just a few of his paintings on display here.

The only other warning I’d offer is that you need a full day to see everything.

So . . . whether you write or draw or muse on history and philosophy, or whether you don’t, if you’re anywhere near Madrid in your lifetime, just go. Use the audio-guide. Look and listen. It’s an incredible museum, full of creativity at its outer extremities.

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