10 of the Most Popular Paintings from the Prado Museum

La Maja Desnuda, Francisco de Goya. La Maja Desnuda, Francisco de Goya. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

A tour of the bustling Spanish capital of Madrid is incomplete without a visit to the endlessly captivating Museo del Prado, or Prado Museum. Considered one of the most comprehensive museum collections of Old Master paintings in Europe, the Prado Museum draws crowds from around the world, with more than 3 million visitors enjoying its galleries in 2019 alone. 

If you want to catch the best of the collection but don’t have time to explore all of the museum’s marvellous holdings, you’ve found the right article. Here, we’ll take you on a virtual tour of the top ten paintings in the museum’s galleries. In addition to sharing a bit about the history of these famous paintings and their artists, we’ll highlight why each painting is a must-see on your Prado Museum tour. 

Fit for A King: The Makings of a Major Madrid Museum

When the Prado Museum first opened its doors in 1819, the Spanish public was amazed by a collection of works, which had been building behind the scenes for generations. The core of the Prado’s then-1,500-work collection (now closer to 2,300 works) had been gradually amassed ever since the reign of King Charles V of Spain (1500 – 1558), also known as the Holy Roman Emperor. He was the first of the Spanish monarchs to devote significant attention to collecting works of art. The allegiances of the Spanish royal court to both the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg dynasties means that art collecting and patronage stayed on trend for future kings of Spain for many years to follow.

It was not until 19th-century Spanish monarch Ferdinand VII, though, that the public gained access to this incredible art collection. Encouraged by his spouse, Queen Maria Isabel de Braganza, Ferdinand established what would become the Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures in an 18th-century structure (construction had been interrupted by the Napoleonic Wars, 1803 – 1815), along Madrid’s axial Paseo del Prado. Some years later, upon La Gloriosa (known as the Glorious Revolution, in 1868, when the then queen Isabella II was deposed), the museum was nationalized and its name was changed to Museo Nacional del Prado, marking its official arrival as the leading museum of art in all of Spain. 

10 Highlights of The Prado Museum

Given that the roots of the art collection stretch back to the sixteenth century, works by major Renaissance and Baroque-era artists from Fra Angelico to Velasquez line many of the Prado’s gallery spaces. Beyond these Old Masters, notable artists from more recent eras of art are also represented. For instance, the Prado is recognized as the world’s best collection of paintings by Francisco Goya (as it holds more than 100 of them). Let’s dive in now to take a closer look at these artistic gems. 

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation (c. 1435) 

The Annunciation, Fra Angelico.

The Annunciation, Fra Angelico. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Acquired by King Phillip III in 1611, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation showcases the Dominican friar’s immense contributions to the Florentine Renaissance. This tempera-on-panel painting originally destined for the Santo Domenico Monastery in Fiesole, Italy, reveals an impeccable application of linear perspective to pull the eye into the scene of the Angel Gabriel’s auspicious appearance to the Madonna with the news that she will give birth to Christ. This scene, housed within an artfully executed Classical loggia, conveys restrained energy as if to express the immediacy of the angel’s arrival and the Madonna’s shock at the news. Fra Angelico also carries the scene outside with a vignette of Adam and Eve as they are being expelled from the Garden of Eden to highlight his skill not only at blending narratives but also in developing a complex pictorial space. 

Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (1435) 

Descent from the Cross, Rogier van der Weyden.

Descent from the Cross, Rogier van der Weyden. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Originally commissioned by Leuven’s guild of crossbowmen but adding to the Spanish royal collection in the 1550s, the Descent from the Cross by 15th-century Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden is widely considered one of the most influential of his generation. Despite his lack of understanding of linear perspective – a highlight of works like Fra Angelico’s Annunciation yet solved with the use of a sumptuous gilded backdrop – van der Weyden’s painting reveals one of the most compelling renditions of the pivotal moment in the life of Christ through the use of remarkably emotive figures. Mary faints in grief and collapses to the ground below the figure of Christ to create a striking diagonal that pulls the viewer’s eye through each intense emotional response. Such unrestrained expression was previously unprecedented, meaning van der Weyden illuminated a new path forward for religious painting during his day. Look closely and you can also find a nod to his patrons: at the far upper corners of the work, scrollwork takes the form of a crossbow. 

Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510)

Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch.

Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymous Bosch. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Renowned for the incredible level of fantasy that his works convey, Hieronymous Bosch could easily earn the title of the most creative and convention-breaking painter of his generation. Garden of Earthly Delights showcases this splendor by tantalizing the viewer with dramatic contrasts across three panels that carry the viewer from the pleasures of the Garden of Eden to the horrors of Hell in three oil-on-canvas panels. Bosch’s Garden overflows with both figures from the gorgeous to the grotesque as well as symbolic references that evoked powerful contrasts between elements such as virtue versus lust or the present versus the eternal. Viewers cannot help being sucked into Bosch’s rich tapestry, and one can imagine that it was this same captivating quality that lured Spanish king Phillip II into purchasing the painting at auction in 1591.  

Raphael’s Portrait of a Cardinal (1510-1511) 

Portrait of a Cardinal, Raphael.

Portrait of a Cardinal, Raphael. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the few Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) paintings held by a collection outside of Italy, the Portrait of a Cardinal by famed Renaissance master Raphael Sanzio is both a straightforward and scintillating painting. Revealing the likeness of a 16th-century cardinal – most likely Francesco Alidosi – Raphael’s portrait reveals his subject in a three-quarter length view. Positioned at a slight angle, the cardinal gazes directly out at us with an air of both naturalism and regality, his refined status echoed in the artful way Raphael captured both his features and robes. Though a smaller composition than some of the Prado’s most treasured, Portrait of a Cardinal transports us across time to recall the energized art world of sixteenth-century Rome. One of the earlier works on our list, Raphael’s Portrait of a Cardinal nevertheless joined the Prado later in the 18th century as an acquisition of King Charles IV. 

Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-1526)

Bacchanal of the Andrians, Titian.

Bacchanal of the Andrians, Titian. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Though members of the Spanish royal court commissioned works directly from famed Venetian Renaissance painter Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) – for example, his 1550s Portrait of Phillip II, today in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples –  one of the most splendid works by the artist in the Prado’s collection was a painting from a series commissioned by the Duke of Ferrara. This oil-on-canvas work is titled  the Bacchanal of the Andrians and depicts a scene of monumental revelry honoring Bacchus, the ancient god of wine and festivities. From the reclining female nude who languishes across the foreground to the figures intertwined in dance beyond, Bacchanal showcases both Titian’s ability to capture evocative narratives and to do so with a purely decadent palette. Titian’s Bacchanal proved so popular that, by the time the painting made its way to the Spanish court in the early 17th century, it had been copied by numerous artists.  

El Greco’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1612-1613) 

The Adoration of the Shepherds, El Greco.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, El Greco. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the last works created during the lifetime of Domenikos Theotokopoulos (better known as El Greco), Adoration of the Shepherds reveals in one canvas why the Crete-born transplant to Toledo became one of Spain’s most treasured painters. In this oil-on–canvas composition originally intended to hang over the artist’s tomb in Toledo, El Greco flattened his figures and compositional space to create a sense of immediacy for the viewer. Further amplifying this sensation is his elongation of the figures who appear robed in muted, chalky hues yet illuminated with a powerful use of tenebrism to pull the eye to the illuminated figure of the Christ child near center left. El Greco is renowned for his artistic play between the Classicism prevalent in  later 16th-century painting, the drama and theatricality in painting that would become dominant in the 17th century, and the legacy of the Byzantine painting tradition of flattened formed and stylized representations still thriving in the 1610s on his native Greek island. The intersections of these ideas are tangible in this Adoration and remind the viewer of the deeper methodological aspects of these brilliant masterpieces. 

Peter Paul Rubens’ Three Graces (1630-1635)

The Three Graces, Peter Paul Rubens.

The Three Graces, Peter Paul Rubens. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens is perhaps best known for the fleshy fullness of his female figures, and these captivating curves are put on full display in Three Graces where Rubens offers a glimpse into the Classical trio of goddesses. Rubens set himself apart stylistically from his contemporaries with his embrace of Classical subjects following his study in Italy from Greco-Roman antiquities. One can imagine it was from this study that Rubens was inspired to convey these three daughters of Zeus in their balletic embrace. Remarkably Rubenesque, these goddesses reappeared in other paintings by the artist, but one could argue this painting was his favorite as it lived in Rubens’ private collection until his death (and was purchased in 1666 by Spanish King Phillip IV). 

Diego Velasquez’s Las Meninas  (1656)

Las Meninas, Diego Velasquez.

Las Meninas, Diego Velasquez. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It is a portrait of the princess, or of the king and queen? Is it instead a statement on the status of the artist himself? Las Meninas by famed Spanish Baroque painter Diego Velasquez is both an exceptional and enigmatic painting as scholars are still not sure of its message. At first it seems that the young Princess Margherita who stands at center is its focus, but then one notes the likeness of the painter (Velasquez himself) primed at the canvas and easel at left. Throw in the mirror that appears at the exact center of the painting that reveals the reflection of the king and queen and it is easy to see that Velasquez worked to play tricks on the viewer. Velasquez would have painted this work while serving as the court painter to the Spanish King, so its roots within the Prado’s collection are longstanding. 

Francisco Goya’s Third of May, 1808 (1814) 

Third of May, 1808, Francisco de Goya.

Third of May, 1808, Francisco de Goya. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to a painter as prolific, dynamic, and celebrated as Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, it is virtually impossible to select one work that reflects his most masterful within the Prado museum. Further complicating matters is that the Prado holds the most extensive collection of his works in the world. Should it be his early court portraits, like Charles IV of Spain with His Family? Or one of his more scandalous, like his erotic La Maja Desnuda or his final Black Paintings, such as Saturn Devouring his Son? Of all of these works, though, one rises to the top for its prominent role both in Goya’s evolution as an artist and the evolution of art altogether. This painting,  Third of May, 1808 reveals the intense aftermath of an uprising of Madrid’s Spanish forces against the French troops that had invaded the country during the Peninsular War. 

The skirmish, captured in the companion Second of May, concluded with the French executing some of the remaining Spanish rebels. This is the horrific scene that Goya relays in Third of May, where the faceless yet ferocious French troops aim their guns at defenseless Spaniards. Their death is foreshadowed in corpses and the pools of blood scattered across the composition, yet Goya instills a sense of hope with the triumphant figure who stands at center with his arms outstretched in confrontation with the mercenaries. Widely considered a turning point in early nineteenth-century painting, Third of May also signified Goya’s arrival as a highly political painter. 

Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier’s Portrait of Josefa Manzanedo (1872)

Portrait of the Marquess, Josefa Manzanedo, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

Portrait of the Marquess, Josefa Manzanedo, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

With eyes that gaze piercingly out at the viewer and a setting adequately sumptuous for royalty, the Portrait of Josefa Manzanedo composed by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier makes a perfect capstone to our top ten list. Meissonier earned acclaim as a painter of military scenes, however, this portrait – one of the few in which he depicts a female sitter – showcases his remarkable ability for refined, finished compositions. Marchioness Josefa was the daughter of Juan Manuel de Mazanedo, Duke of Santoña, who earned his title from Spanish King Alfonso XII and was inordinately wealthy thanks to his business dealings. Josefa’s setting reflects this wealth, from the elegant tapestries and furnishings to the luxurious nature of her dress. For all of these trappings of status, though, Josefa appears strikingly natural in her expression. Meissonier succeeded in capturing a refreshed sense of authenticity in her expression, ensuring to immortalize her beauty while also conveying humanity in a portrait that could otherwise have become overly idealized. 

Only a Peek at the Prado’s Treasures

With these ten works you can be treated not just to the best paintings in the Prado Museum’s hallowed halls but also to some of the most treasured paintings in all of art history. These selections chart more than four centuries and offer a tantalizing tour of art’s evolution across this dynamic epoch. That being said, these ten works only scratch the surface of the incredibly vast holdings of the museum that approach 10,000 works across the fields of drawings, prints, paintings, sculptures, coins, and other decorative objects. We encourage you to use this list as your springboard, then, to a deeper look into the Prado’s famous paintings, as we are certain that this peek will prime an incomparable visit.