• Leslie

Must See Art Masterpieces in Europe

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel

Here's my guide to 75 must see art masterpieces in Europe, for your Europe art check list. These works of art -- paintings and sculptures -- are the most important and beautiful works of art in Europe. Some of these masterpieces changed the course of art history.

In this Europe art guide, I take you on a chronological tour of the greatest art of Europe, from ancient Greece through the Renaissance to the 20th century. Knowing about these magnificent artistic treasures will either stoke your wanderlust or lend depth to your museum-viewing if you're already there.

Europe art bucket list

The Best Art in Europe and Where To Find It

Here are my picks for 75 works of art that should be on your bucket list for Europe. You'll travel to the art cities of Paris, London, Rome, Madrid, Florence, and more. You'll tour many of Europe's must visit destinations.

Believe it or not, it's not so easy to narrow it down to 75 when you're surveying the history of Western art. I've written about many of these European masterpieces and the museums they're in. I've linked to my relevant blog articles in case you want to know more about a specific piece.

Laocoon, 42-20 BC
Laocoon, 42-20 BC

Ancient Greece

1. Laocoon | Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Laocoön is one of the world's most ancient and valuable sculptures. It's a marble masterpiece from Greece's Hellenistic period. It likely dates back as far as 323 B.C. The sculpture was famously unearthed in the Esquiline Vineyard in 1506. Happily, Michelangelo recognized its significance and pressed for its restoration.

Laocoön is based on an ancient Greek myth. In it, the priest Laocoön and his sons are attacked by a serpent sent by either Poseidon or Athena. It's a tormented, action packed vignette. To no avail, three figures desperately try to untangle themselves from a serpent.

READ: Guide To the Vatican Museums

Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in London
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in London

2. Elgin Marbles | British Museum, London & Acropolis Museum, Athens

The "Elgin Marbles" are the beautiful friezes and sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens, built between 447 and 438 B.C.

The Parthenon was decorated with the finest art of its day, conceived and carved by master sculptor Phidias. The east and west pediments had magnificent friezes (decorative horizontal bands), which depicted an Athenian religious process. They were meant to be a continuous narrative of the Athenian gods.

The marbles can now be seen in the British Museum in London and the Acopolis Museum in Athens.

READ: Guide To Free Museums in London

Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BC
Pergamon Altar, 2nd century BC

3. Pergamon Altar | Pergamon Museum, Berlin Germany

Perhaps the star attraction of Berlin's Museum Island is the beautiful Pergamon Museum. The museum takes its name from its marquee attraction -- the stunning Pergamon Altar.

The altar’s architectural framework is impressive. It consists of a monumental structure surrounded by columns and accessed by a grand staircase. The most eye-catching feature is undoubtedly the wraparound marble frieze. It depicts the mythological battle between the Gods of Mount Olympus and Giants.

Venus de Milo, 150 BC
Venus de Milo, 150 BC

4. Venus de Milo | Louvre, Paris

Perhaps the most beautiful Hellenistic sculpture located in the Louvre is the Venus de Milo. The goddess of love was discovered in 1820 on the island of Melos. The artist who created Venus was Alexanders of Antioch.

Venus has an idealized form. Unfortunately, her arms and metal jewelry are long lost. Venus has an erotic feel, with her clothing falling around her sensual curves. Her body displays a spiral contrapposto position.

READ: Guide To Underrated Masterpieces of the Louvre

Capitoline She-Wolf, 5th century BC
Capitoline She-Wolf, 5th century BC

Ancient Rome

5. Capitoline She-Wolf | Capitoline Museums, Rome

The Capitoline She Wolf is a bronze masterpiece dating from the 5th century BC. Now, that's ancient. Pope Sixtus IV donated it to the museum. The She Wolf then became the symbol of ancient empire of Rome. It's a powerful image.

Legend holds that Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus. The boys were abandoned by their mother.

But they were suckled by a kind she-wolf and then rescued by either shepard or river god. The figures of Romulus and Remus as infants were added to the sculpture to enhance the legend.

READ: Guide To the Capitoline Museums

Apollo Belvedere, 130 AD
Apollo Belvedere, 130 AD

6. Apollo Belvedere | Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Apollo Belvedere is a famous sculpture from antiquity, certainly the most famous sculpture in the Vatican. It's a Roman copy of Leochares' bronze original from the 2nd century.

Critics recognized it as Roman because Apollo is wearing distinctively Roman sandals. The identity of the sculptor is unknown.

The larger than life marble sculpture shows the god Apollo in a martial pose, having just shot an arrow. He may originally have been carrying one. The work is anatomically realistic and brilliantly executed. Apollo Belvedere is considered the epitome of masculine beauty and athleticism.

Theodora mosaic, 547 AD
Theodora mosaic, 547 AD

7. Justinian and Theodora Mosaics | Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna Italy

Ravenna's pièce de résistance are two famous mosaic panels dedicated to the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. They show the pair making offerings to Jesus against a field of gold.

They are both resplendent in fine capes and jewels, proving to the world that the Byzantine Empire is back in charge. Though the pair were both from lowly origins, Justinian and Theodora wear halos, testifying to their role in the divine.

Justinian conflates himself with Christ and Theodora gives off mother Mary vibes. The message is clear: the peace and prosperity of the Byzantine Empire is brought to you by both the emperor and God.

READ: Guide To the Mosaics of Ravenna

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, 181 AD
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, 181 AD

8. Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius | Capitoline Museums, Rome

This statue is antiquity's greatest surviving equestrian statue. Equestrian statues were popular in imperial Rome.

They celebrated an emperor's civic and military accomplishments, and were often copied on coins. The horse is particularly compelling, caught in a moment of movement.

This sculpture originally may have graced the Roman Forum before being moved to the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio. Now, there's now a 16th century copy in that spot. The original is protected from the elements in a modern glass hall in the Captitoline Museums.

READ: Guide To the Best Museums in Rome

mosaics in the Florence Baptistery, 1225
mosaics in the Florence Baptistery, 1225

Medieval and Pre-Renaissance Eras

9. Judgement Day | Florence Baptistery, Florence Italy

Florence's Baptistery dates from 1059, it's over a thousand years old. To locals, the Baptistery is Florence's most significant monument. It's adorned with the famous golden "Gates of Paradise" designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and nicknamed by Michelangelo.

The highlight of the Baptistery is a stunning golden Byzantine style ceiling fresco. The mosaic tells the story of the Last Judgement, the apocalyptic tale where Jesus determines who will go to heaven and hell. Jesus is 19 feet tall. There's a shockingly low number of people depicted as heading to heaven.

The baptistery's hell is a disturbing image, a rare graphic detail in the Middle Ages. Hell is shown as the place where the wicked get what they deserve, roasted in eternal flames with monsters and snakes. Satan has bodies dangling from his mouth.

READ: Guide to Florence's Baptistery

detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, 1070
detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, 1070

10. Bayeux Tapestry | Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux France

Most people go to Bayeux to see the thousand year old, and exceedingly long (230 feet), Bayeux Tapestry. Housed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, the tapestry chronicles the events leading up to William the Conqueror's invasion of France. In 50 scenes, it depicts the battle of Hastings and the showdown between William and King Harold II.

It's unclear when the the Bayeux Tapestry (actually an embroidery) was created. But historians speculate that it was not long after the events it depicts.

The tapestry is remarkably well-preserved given its age, though it has been restored several times. The tapestry was most likely created by William's queen, Matilda, and her court.

READ: One Week Itinerary for Normandy

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maesta, 1311 -- the front
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maesta, 1311 -- the front

11. Duccio's Maesta, Siena Cathedral, Siena Italy

Duccio's Maesta is the most famous Italian painting from the International Gothic period. It's the most precious art work ever created in Siena. The Maesta is a famous painting in the course of art history, the last great medieval altarpiece.

The Maesta was 17 x 16 feet, a massive double sided altarpiece covered in gold and glitter.

In the front portion of the Maesta, you see a majestic Mary seated on a throne. Swaddled in translucent drapery, Jesus looks nothing like a baby. More like a wise old man, who's almost standing up.

READ: Guide To Siena Cathedral

Giotto frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel
Giotto frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel

12. Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel | Padua, Italy

The Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is wallpapered with exquisite frescos by Giotto, the greatest painter of the 14th century. The chapel is one of the world's greatest art works. It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2021.

Giotto painted a cycle of 39 frescos depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus in 1303-05. It's a precious masterpiece of Italian art, as stunning in person as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.

His Scrovegni frescos were a watershed moment in art history. In its realism, the chapel is considered one of the first examples of "modern art" and profoundly influenced subsequent Renaissance painters.

READ: Guide To the Scrovegni Chapel With Tips for Visiting

Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1306-10
Giotto, The Ognissanti Madonna and Child Enthroned, 1306-10

13. Giotto's Ognissanti Madonna | Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Giotto was the first painter to successfully break away from the Byzantine style of painting. With Cimabue as his teacher, Giotto adopted a more natural, rather than supernatural, style. His madonnas didn't look like unreal aliens.

Giotto laid the foundation for two centuries of subsequent Renaissance painting. He's most famous for his frescos in Padua's Scrovegni Chapel.

But this beautiful painting is also well known. It's called the Ognissanti Madonna because it previously hung in an altar in Florence's Ognissanti Church.

READ: Guide To the Uffizi Gallery

Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government, 1338
Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government, 1338

14. Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government | Palazzo Pubblico, Siena Italy

The magnificent Palazzo Pubblico sits proudly in one of Europe's most beautiful medieval squares, the Piazza del Campo. The palace holds one of the most important secular fresco cycles from the middle ages -- the Allegory of Good and Bad Government.

This is one of the most marvelous, poignant, and timeless fresco cycles in Italy. It's the only secular painting of everyday urban and rural life that exists from the Middle Ages. It's an incredibly significant work.

Created in 1337-41, the didactic paintings are about what actually goes into a good government. The frescos are both a promise and a threat. They remind the city council how to govern in a moral way.

READ: Guide To Palazzo Pubblico

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1443
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1443

15. Fra Angelico's Annunciation | San Marco Monastery, Florence

Fra Angelico's TheAnnunciation is one of the most celebrated images of Western art. The Annunciation is a celestial masterpiece. It depicts an intimate moment and spiritual reflection. This is not an art work that tells you how to feel. Rather, it summons you into its world.

The Virgin Mary greets the Angel Gabriel in a walled garden with Corinthian columns, evoking the Garden of Eden. Gabriel delivers the big news -- that Mary will give birth to Christ.

The fresco isn't opulent. Mary's clothes are pale. She's slumped over, as if she's fearful or already having morning sickness. The only elaborate image is Gabriel's wings, embellished with peacock eyes.

READ: Guide To San Marco Monastery

Lady and the unicorn: To My Sole Desire, 1500
Lady and the unicorn: To My Sole Desire, 1500

16. Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries | Cluny Museum, Paris

The highlight of Paris' Cluny Museum is the 15th century series of tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn. Each piece celebrates one of the five senses. The fanciful work, with sensual undertones, helped usher in the humanistic Renaissance.

In medieval lore, unicorns were solitary creatures that could only be tamed by a virgin. In secular society, unicorns symbolized how a man was drawn to his love interest. In religion, the unicorn was a symbol of Christ.

These exquisite and mysterious tapestries were inspired by both all these traditions. They give us a peek at life from a time when the people of Paris were just stepping out of medieval darkness.

READ: Guide To the Best Museums in Paris

Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, 1425-52
Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, 1425-52

17. Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise | Duomo Museum, Florence

Nicknamed by Michelangelo, Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise once adorned the front doors of the Baptistery in Florence. The originals are a masterpiece of the Early Renaissance, with a clarity of line and illusionism. Now, they're in the fabulous Duomo Museum.

The doors are massive. There are ten square scenes of relief sculpture, displayed in two lines.

They depict Old Testament scenes from left to right and from top to bottom. The doors are framed with 24 small bronze busts of famous Florentines, including Ghiberti's self-portrait.

READ: Guide To Florence's Opera dell'Duomo

Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, 1427
Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, 1427


18. Masaccio's Holy Trinity | Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence holds one of the most famous paintings in Italy, the Holy Trinity by Masaccio. Masaccio was an early Renaissance superhero, who tragically died young of malaria at only 27.

This painting is hugely important. Art historians consider it the first true Renaissance painting. In it, Masaccio pioneered the use of single point perspective, a 3D image on a 2D surface. He forever changed the course of painting.

READ: Guide To Santa Maria Novella

Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434
Jan Van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434

19. Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Portrait | National Gallery, London

Contrary to popular belief, the Renaissance didn't just happen in Florence. It was happening simultaneously in Northern Europe. This portrait may be the world's first oil, rather than tempera, painting.

The Arnolfini Portrait is a stunning full length double portrait with astonishing realism. Presumably, it's a portrait of a wealthy merchant and his wife in their upscale apartment in Bruges. Some think it's a wedding scene. Others think it was a portrait intended to show off the family's wealth. It may be the first in the genre of interior paintings of everyday life.

In the center back, a mirror glistens, proving a tour de force of perspective. Reflected in the glass are miniaturized versions of the couple. The room itself has a sophisticated orthogonal perspective. Van Eyck's vivid color palette is on display.

Donatello, Bronze David, 1440
Donatello, Bronze David, 1440

20. Donatello's Bronze David | Bargello Museum, Florence

Commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, the beautiful Bronze David is Donatello's best work. Bronze David is the first freestanding nude sculpture since Greco-Roman times. It was a radical depiction of the biblical story of David and Goliath.

READ: History of the Medici Dynasty

A life-like Bronze David elegantly reinterprets the classical canon. It wasn't the usual heroic rendering, with a powerful giant slayer.

There's nothing modest about Bronze David. It's simultaneously eroticized and androgynized. The piece was created for a private environment, where it would be acceptably cheeky. It's nicknamed Puss 'n Boots.

READ: Guide To the Bargello Museum

the oculus in Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi
the oculus in Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi

21. Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi | Ducal Palace, Mantua Italy

The Camera is a magical room frescoed with illusionistic paintings in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. It's a hugely influential masterpiece from the Early Renaissance, considered the first trompe l'oeil in the history of painting. For its beauty and uniqueness, the Camera became a UNESCO site in 2008.

The storytelling frescos were crated between 1465-74. They contain portraits of the Gonzaga family, with a vivid and revealing look at court life in the 15th century. Mantegna effectively transformed the small interior room into an elegant open air pavilion.

The ceiling is the most celebrated part of the Camera degli Sposi. It's adorned with fictive, but hyperrealistic, ribs and relief panels to give a sense of decoration over the medieval vaults.

READ: Guide To the Camera degli Sposi

Pierro della Francesca, The Duke and Duchess of Urbino, 1473-75
Pierro della Francesca, The Duke and Duchess of Urbino, 1473-75

22. Piero della Francesca, The Duke and Duchess of Urbino | Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Piero della Francesca is an admired 15th century Italian painter. He used a cool color palette and sense of geometry and formality to create his works. In addition to being an artist, Piero was a mathematical theorist.

This double portrait used to be a diptych. It was hinged like a book, with landscape scenes painted on the back. The painting is one of the most celebrated portraits of the Renaissance.

It's a strange juxtaposition and unflattering portrayal of the couple. The couple is together, but apart. Only a background landscape, rare for that time in painting, connects them.

READ: Guide to the Piero della Francesca Trail

Botticelli, detail of Primavera, 1482
Botticelli, detail of Primavera, 1482

23. Botticelli's Primavera | Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Sandro Botticelli is the undisputed master of the early Renaissance period. Botticelli's Primavera, also known as the Allegory of Spring, is a painting filled with symbolism.

Venus is in the center of an orange grove with a half circle enveloping her. The choice of an orange grove is significant because the Medici, Botticelli's chief employer, had adopted the orange tree as their family symbol.

On Venus' left, the Three Graces (who represent chastity, beauty, and love) dance in celebration, while Mars dissipates the clouds. The translucent drapery of their clothing is incredible. Even their hair is interwoven with pearls. On the right, Zephyrus is in hot pursuit of his intended, a nymph who transforms into Flora.

Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1485
Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1485

24. Botticelli's Birth of Venus | Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Botticelli's Birth of Venus is the Uffizi's most famous art work, akin to the Mona Lisa in Paris. The work was revolutionary.

The beautiful Birth of Venus is a dreamlike celebration of beauty and love. It's a lush, richly symbolic, and a groundbreaking piece. It was the first large scale painting of a nude woman in almost 1000 years. The nudity wasn't religious either; it was pagan.

Botticelli was a highly skilled painter and had an understanding of human anatomy. But he also made objectively beautiful paintings with luminous pastel colors. Even Venus' hair is gleaming and highlighted. Venus' nakedness is idealized and innocent, not erotic. The model for Venus was reputedly Simonetta Vespucci, the most beautiful woman in Florence.

READ: Guide To the Botticelli Trail in Florence

Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1498
Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1498

25. Leonardo's The Last Supper | Santa Marie delle Grazie, Milan Italy

The Last Supper is one of the world's most iconic paintings, housed in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan Italy. No painting is so familiar, save for the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

Painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the billboard size painting is a Renaissance masterpiece. The Last Supper is a fresco telling a bible story. The work is enormous, measuring 15 by 29 feet. It covers the entire wall of the refectory (dining hall) in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

The Last Supper depicts the last meal Jesus took with his apostles. The fresco shows the climactic moment after Christ announces his imminent death. The fresco is filled with psychological tension, an insightful painting of real men.

READ: Guide To Visting Leonardo's The Last Supper

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1506
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, 1506

26. Leonardo's Mona Lisa | Louvre, Paris

Leonardo's famous Mona Lisa is a famed Renaissance masterpiece, which hangs in the Louvre. It's one of the most famous, maybe THE most famous painting, in art history.

Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa sometime between 1503-19. At the time, he was living in Florence, a city dubbed the "Cradle of the Renaissance."

The 30 x 21 inch Mona Lisa now hangs under shatterproof glass on a freestanding blue wall. It's visited by millions of people each year in Paris. They come to see her enigmatic smile and admire a key moment in Renaissance history when Leonardo perfected the technique of sfumato.

READ: Guide To the Mona Lisa

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1499
Michelangelo, Pieta, 1499

27. Michelangelo's Pieta | St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

This was the statue that launched Michelangelo's fame. Michelangelo's Pieta is behind bullet proof glass in St. Peter's Basilica.

The Pieta was a popular subject among northern European artists. It means pity or compassion. The pietas depicts Mary sorrowfully contemplating her son's dead body, which she holds on her lap.

Michelangelo's Pieta itself is tragically beautiful, a moving sculpture in which stone seems soft. And just look at Mary's exquisite face ... It's quite a piece for a 23 year old. Michelangelo's signature is across Mary's sash. It's the only work the artist ever signed.

READ: Complete Guide To St. Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo, detail of David, 1504
Michelangelo, detail of David, 1504

28. Michelangelo's David | Accademia Gallery, Florence

Michelangelo's David is at Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia. David is perhaps the world's most famous sculpture. The 17 foot Renaissance statue is considered the embodiment of male beauty, a Calvin Klein-like model of physical perfection.

David is based on an Old Testament story of an underdog and his giant competitor. The statue was commissioned for Florence's Duomo. But it ended up guarding the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio instead. Now, it's safely inside.

READ: Guide to Seeing Michelangelo's David at the Accademia

Michelangelo frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

29. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Frescos | Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Michelangelo's stunning Sistine Chapel frescos are the undisputed highlight of a visit to the Vatican Museums in Rome. The chapel boasts some of the most famous paintings in the history of art, including the Creation of Adam. It's a room of unrivaled artistic creation.

At the highest point of the ceiling is a central band with nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. There are 175 separate pictorial fields on the ceiling. Michelangelo created a complex stage set with levels of reality. The main panels are framed with prophets, sybils, ignudi, and architectural elements.

READ: Complete Guide To Michelangelo Frescos in the Sistine Chapel

In 1536, 24 years after he had finished painting the ceiling, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel. At age 61, Pope Clement VII summoned him to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall. It took him 5 years to complete the powerful fresco.

It's an overwhelming composition, set in azure blue background. The majority of the figures painted in the scenes were nude (and later given underpants).

In the middle, Christ decides who's been naughty and nice. He looks decidedly different than usual. He's shown as excessively youthful, buff, smoothly shaven, and floating on clouds.

Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506
Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1506

30. Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch | Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Raphael was another prodigious talent of the Italian Renaissance, producing a series of masterpieces before his premature death at the age of 37. The Uffizi contains one of his loveliest paintings, the serene Madonna of the Goldfinch.

The painting shows Mary with two chubby kids, a young Christ and John the Baptist, under a halo of clouds. The goldfinch is a potent symbol of the passion of Christ, of Christ's suffering.

You can see a tenderness between mother and child. Christ puts his foot on his mother's foot, as he (rather amusingly) stands in a staged and artificially elegant contrapposto pose. The Madonna doesn't sit on a throne anymore, but a rock. Nature has taken on the expression of God, without kingly symbols.