Must See Masterpieces at the Prado Museum in Madrid
Updated: Apr 14
Here's my guide to the must see masterpieces at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The Prado is special. It's Spain's cultural jewel, boasts one of Europe's finest and most sensuous painting collections, and is a must see site in Madrid.
The Prado opened in 1819 as the Royal Museum of Paintings. The vaunted museum celebrates its 200th birthday this year. The artistic anchors of the Prado are Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Peter Paul Rubens. But there are also masterpieces by Titian, Bosch, and El Greco. You can wander endlessly, in awe, through room after room full of beautiful paintings.
But the Prado is a massive place. Without a plan, you could just ricochet around unproductively, the masterpieces come so fast and furious. I provide some must know tips and tricks for visiting the Prado at the end of the article.
Virtual Tour of the Prado Museum
If you want to take a virtual tour of the Prado and see some of these masterpieces, you can. The Prado recently broadcast a live video in which its director, Miguel Falomir, gave a 20-minute talk on Tintoretto’s famed Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet.
The Prado also has a 360 virtual tour of its Rubens exhibition and an impressive online collection of over 10,000 works of art. Smarthistory has a large cache of YouTube videos exploring many of the Prado's best works, including some that I mention below. The Prado also does a live one hour show on Instagram, also posted on Facebook, every morning at 10:00 am.
You can also take a virtual tour of the former Sala de la Reina Isabel, now renamed and reconfigured as the Sala Velazquez, one of the museum's most important rooms.
What To See at the Prado Museum
Here's my guide to the top 12 must see paintings at the Prado. These art works are all undisputed masterpieces and perfect for the first time Prado visitor. Use these paintings to map out your itinerary.
1. Heironymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505, Room 56A
In The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, Bosch depicts an indecipherable freakish world full of temptations. It's likely a creation and damnation image -- populated with hybrid naked creatures, amorous acts, and hallucinatory horrors. It's safe to say it wasn't an altarpiece.
Not much is known about the mysterious Bosch. Art historians don't know when he was born, whether he was educated, or who his patrons were.
None of Bosch's contemporaneous writings have survived, so it's difficult to interpret his paintings. Art historians have been searching for and analyzing symbols in his mysterious work for centuries. For instance, there are many strawberries in the central panel, which may be a seductive "love fruit."
Despite its seemingly shocking content, the painting was popular at the time. There is evidence that the painting was displayed in prominent locations and that tapestries and copies were made of Bosch's seminal work. Other painters, including Pieter Bruegel, copied Bosch's style. And Bosch heavily influenced the Surrealist Movement.
A lesser known fact is that, if you close the shutters of the triptych, you have an entirely different painting. It depicts the world, encased in a globe with a tiny god figure in the top left corner.
2. Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Room 12
Las Meninas is another enigmatic painting, one of the most important masterpieces of European art. Las Meninas is essentially the Prado's Mona Lisa. The French painter Édouard Manet said "Velázquez alone is worth the trip" to the Prado. Las Meninas means "maids of honor" in Spanish.
Velázquez was the court painter of Philip IV, a supporter of the arts known as the "Poet King." During his career, he turned out dozens of portraits of the royal family. This one almost looks like a polaroid and is Velázquez's culminating work.
Art historians still dispute its meaning. The painting has a unique perspective. It's populated by an odd cast of characters -- a nun, a dwarf, the artist himself, a princess. The king and queen are seen in the background, reflected in a mirror. There's a lot of space devoted to the ceiling.
The painting is so unusual and intimate that it may have been an imaged scene. It's unclear whether the Las Meninas is a self-portrait, a royal portrait, or a picture of a time when the princess spontaneously came to Velázquez's studio.
Some art critics describe the painting as an optical illusion where viewers are pulled into the painting. Velázquez was a master of light and shadow. He deliberately used it to convey a sense of mystery.
3. Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814, Room 64
In 1807, Napoleon invaded Spain and installed his brother on the throne. On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled. On May 3, these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French. Blood ran through the streets of Madrid.
The slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war left a profound impression on Goya. He created two commissioned pantings commemorating the Spanish uprising: The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. They're both in the Prado and decidedly not your typical Salon paintings.
The Third of May 1808 is Goya's most famous work and perhaps the best painting in the Prado. In it, Goya depicts man's inhumanity to man, not a bloodless heroic affair. It's an emotionally charged painting where the central figure, an anti hero with baffled raised arms, is killed on the side of the road like an animal by anonymous gunmen.
Because it's so raw, the painting was sent straight to storage, unseen by the public for 40 years. It's a chilling image, a powerful anti-war statement that later influenced Manet and Picasso.
4. Raphael, The Cardinal, 1510, Room 49
Raphael is one of the great painters of the Renaissance period, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Most of Raphael's work is in the Vatican, but there are quite a few pieces in the Prado. At the height of his powers, Raphael was thought to paint people "as more real than they really are."
The subject of this exquisite painting is unknown, thought the best guess is Cardinal Giovanni Alidosi. He has an enigmatic expression rather like the Mona Lisa. But he was known as a ruthless man. And the severity and intensity of the portrait, with its stark colors, may reflect that.
5. Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1498, Room 55B
Albrecht Dürer was a famous artist of the northern Renaissance.
Born in Nuremberg, he combined the elaborate detailing characteristic of northern art with the Renaissance principles of perspective and proportion. He was most famous as a groundbreaking printmaker. While that brought him fame, his commissioned portraits are what brought him money to live.
This Self-Portrait is the second of three Dürer portraits. Dürer had a high opinion of himself and his artistic genius. So his self portraits are rather self-aggrandizing. In this one, a haughty Dürer appears as an aristocrat of some importance dressed in flamboyant clothes. His hair is reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's famous vortex curls.
You can get Smarthistory's full scoop on this famous painting here.
6. Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1435, Room C, Temporary Exhibition
Far Angelico's exquisite Annunciation was an altarpiece for the monastery of Santo Domenico near Florence. It's considered the first Florentine altarpiece in the Renaissance style.
Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar who became a revolutionary in the world of Italian painting. He used beautiful decorative elements and a rational treatment of space to depict the spiritual. He was known posthumously as the "Angelic Painter" with "a rare and perfect talent."
To the left of the painting, you see Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise. To the right, an angel bows before the Virgin Mary telling her she'll give birth to Christ.
The painting was recently restored in time for Prado's major 2019 exhibition "Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance." Restoration uncovered the work's vivid colors and intense light, which were obscured over time by aggregated layers of dirt and pollution. Now, the painting shines with new luminosity.
7. Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1635, Room 29
One cannot view a Rubens without the word "voluptuous" popping into your mind. The man had a thing for full figured curves and bare flesh.
But his pioneering treatment of the female image, with dramatic and sensuous brushstrokes, created new definitions of form and style. And gave rise to a new adjective -- "Rubenesque." To me, his more realistically rendered women are a breath of fresh air compared to today's skinny aesthetic.
Rubens was a Flemish Baroque painter known for his portraits and mythological paintings. Titian was a huge source of inspiration for him. Rubens was prolific, creating over 1400 paintings in his lifetime, and an influence on Velázquez.
In this Prado painting, he depicts the three graces from Greek mythology, daughters of Zeus and Oceanid. Their job was to entertain the gods and goddesses with singing and dancing. The painting exudes joie de vivre.
8. El Greco, Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, 1580, Room 8B
El Greco had little interest in depicting things as they appeared. He used his imagination and reconsidered form and figure.
Initially inspired by Renaissance painters, El Greco quickly adopted the style of the new Mannerism movement. The Mannerists didn't want to imitate nature. They sought to veer from reality and expose the underlying psychological aspects and inner world of a subject.
Consistent with this thinking, El Greco's portraits, like the one above, depict tortuously elongated figures in sometimes starting pigmentation. They are more expressive and abstract than his contemporaries' subjects. In fact, El Greco may be one of the precursors of Expressionism.
Gentleman With His Hand on his Chest is El Greco's most famous portrait. The subject is unknown. He's part of of El Greco’s famous series of unknown officials from Toledo.
Surrounded by muted dark colors, he stares intensely at the viewer. His beard, face, and fingers are stylized and elongated. El Greco practiced what he preached and "guarded the original style that beats within your soul."
9. Juan Sanchez Cotan, Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, 1602, Room 8A
Why is a picture of vegetables significant?
Well, this painting is considered the first ever Spanish still life. It's one of only six known paintings by Cotan. Cotan is known as "the father of Spanish still life painting" and a pioneer of Baroque realism.
He used light and shadow to give pictures a sense of volume and intensity. Cotan influenced other Spanish painters, like Francisco de Zurbarán. His greatest works, like this one, are spare, with illusionistic arrangements. Here, he paints the inside of a cupboard. The vegetables are offered up one by one, almost suffused with a spiritual aura.
Cotan was also a pious man. In 1602, spirituality won out and Cotan abandoned painting to become a monk.
10. José de Ribera, The Bearded Woman, 1651, Room 8
Lesser known among Spanish painters, Ribera spent most of his career in Italy. This riveting triple portrait, Bearded Women, is one of his rare secular works. It's rendered in a fashion that was peculiarly popular in the 17th century -- portraying a person with physical abnormalities.
The Duke of Alcala, a major patron of Ribera, commissioned Bearded Woman in 1631. Felix and Magdalena Ventura are the subjects. They were a married couple with three sons. At age 37, Magdalena developed a full beard and became something of a local celebrity.
Although her appearance is startling, Ribera creates a respectful portrait of the couple. Magdalena’s face is forlorn, but dignified. Her husband is fretting, but not judgmental. The painting's inscription calls Magdalena a "great wonder of nature." Some modern experts describe her as a "17th century hero of gender fluidity."
This painting originally hung in the Casa de Pilatos in Seville.
11. Titian, Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg, 1548, Room 27
There are 35 Titians in the Prado -- a vast number. The most famous is his large Portrait of Charles V on Horseback, in which you can see the Holy Roman Emperor at the Battle of Mühlberg, where he defeated the naughty Protestant German princes who had joined the Reformation.
The Venetian painter Titian was Charles V's favorite painter. And Titian does him justice in this portrait. The emperor looks calm and courageous, his iron will evident. He looks every inch the commander.
It's a bit of a fictional propaganda portrait though. When painted, Charles V was already 57 years old. He had abdicated and retired to a steady diet of beer, sausage, and eel pie. He had gout and was rather obese.
The portrait was damaged in the 1700s by a fire, which changed Titian's trademark bold and saturated colors somewhat. But they still seem vivid.
12. Saturn Devouring His Son, Francisco Goya, 1819-23, Room 67
There's two room (67 & 68) devoted to Goya's infamous and startling "Black Paintings" from late in his career.
The Black Paintings are some of the most disturbing artworks ever made. They depict existential despondency over the human condition and edge-of-death despair. They were originally murals in Goya's home, but were taken off the walls and transferred to canvas with some damage.
The most famous Black Painting is undoubtedly Saturn Devouring His Son, based on Roman mythology. Saturn was a Roman god who come to power by overthrowing his father. It was prophesied that Saturn would suffer the same fate. To avoid this fate, Saturn swallowed his children whole.
Perhaps the most striking detail of the painting is Saturn's evident distress. He has a crazed, anguish look on his face. He looks shocked at his own monstrousness. Goya left no record providing an interpretation of his Black Paintings. Art historians speculate that they reflect either Goya's own fear of madness and death or his reaction to the horrors of the Napoleonic wars.
My personal favorite Black Painting is The Drowning Dog. In it, a desperately expressive little dog with human features pleads for rescue, submerged up to its neck in a mud colored mire beneath a gloomy ochre hell. The dog seems lost in the emptiness of the image. He could be buried or half drowned.
Tips for Visiting the Prado Museum in Madrid
Now that you know where to scout out the Prado's best masterpieces, it's time for some other handy tips for the visiting the Prado.
To avoid being overwhelmed by the Pardo's treasure trove of art, pick up a free brochure at the front desk. You can pick from "highlights" routes of 1 hour, 2 hours, or 3 hours. Each has a progressively greater number of works to see. The routes are created to show you the most important art during your allotted time. Or, you can create your own route in advance, using the 12 masterpieces above as a guide.
You may want to download the Prado's museum plan to map out your path through the nearly 120 galleries. Be forewarned, the numerical order of the galleries doesn't help much because they don't connect logically. For example, Room 1 connects to Room 42, but not to Room 2.
The explanations next to the paintings are quite detailed, so you may not need an audio guide or guide book.
If you dread crowds and long lines, buy online tickets (link below) and visit during the off season. You won't have to queue up to collect your ticket. Just bring a print out or show the ticket voucher on your phone. Unfortunately, if you've purchased a reduced price ticket, you'll have to stand in line to collect your tickets and show ID for proof of age.
The best time to visit is probably around 3:00 pm, when Spanish siesta time is starting and tour groups may already have passed through. If you want to avoid the rather high entry price, there are times you can enter for free. But it will be crowded then. If you come an hour before closing and there's a line, try another day.
There are 5 entrances to the Prado, which can be confusing. You can only buy tickets at the Goya gates, both on Felipe IV street in the Plaza de Goya. The Puerto de Goya Baja offers a full range of tickets, including discounted ticket prices for seniors and children. The other entrance, Puerto de Goya Alta, has automated ticket machines. Automated machines may mean shorter lines.
The other three gates (Velázquez, Jerónimos, and Murillo) are access points only. You must have purchased an online ticket in advance to enter there. The Murillo entrance is technically only for tour groups, so you risk being turned away there.
If you want to visit all three museums in Madrid's vaunted "golden triangle," which includes the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia museums, you can buy a skip the line combo ticket.
Art shouldn't be gobbled down whole. You could succumb to the dreaded "museum fatigue." Ideally, you'd need several trips to the Prado, viewing and reviewing the many masterpieces, to take in all the great art properly. If you only have a few hours, make these 12 paintings your priority.
Practical Information for the Prado: