Last Updated on December 15, 2023

I fell in love with art at Museo Nacional del Prado – the Prado Museum – in Madrid. I was in my early 30s and had zero interest in art previously; my passion was sports. The famous paintings at the Prado, however, opened my eyes to something I didn’t realize previously: paintings were stories.

Prior to the Prado, in the few art museum visits I’d ever made, I was just looking at pictures. A tour guide helped me understand the meanings and messages behind the famous paintings at Prado, as well as the remarkable stories of their creators. Like how Francisco Goya suffered from tinnitus.

I grew up in a home without art. I had only ever visited a handful of art museums in my life. I didn’t take any art history classes. I couldn’t draw a circle, still can’t, but this one day in front of the best paintings in Prado changed the course of my life. Not initially, I still had to get sports out of my system, but in about 10 years’ time after visiting the great museum in Madrid, I would transition my career into arts writing.

It all began that day at the Prado.

Prado Museum Madrid Highlights

The Prado Museum is among the small handful of universally recognized best art museums in the world. The best paintings in Prado draw millions of visitors annually. They are recognized the world over. They have been endlessly reproduced onto t-shirts and tote bags.

They define Western Civilization and have influenced every subsequent artist working in that tradition.

The original building housing what was first called Spain’s “National Museum of Paintings and Sculptures” opened to the public in 1819. At that point, it only displayed the work of Spanish artists. One of what would become the Prado Museum’s primary objectives was raising the profile and prestige of Spanish artists.

The Prado Museum’s collection of Spanish paintings, easily the best in the world, remains its strength. That’s not the only strength. Italian, French and Flemish artists have also contributed to the best paintings in the Prado.

In addition to paintings, Prado Museum Madrid highlights include an exceptional display of sculpture. What you will not find in big numbers that you may be expecting are antiquities from Egypt, Greece or Rome. The Prado Museum Madrid highlights are heavily weighted toward Western European paintings from the Renaissance through 1900.

That is important to note; the Prado Museum permanent collection almost exclusively contains artwork made prior to 1900. If you’re looking for modern art, you’ll need to visit the nearby Reina Sofia, that’s where you’ll find Picasso’s Guernica. The Thyssen-Bornemisza, the third of Madrid’s “Big 3” art museums, displays a variety of artworks from the Renaissance through contemporary time.

The Reina Sofia and Thyssen-Bornemisza are both located less than 1,000 meters from the Prado on opposite ends.

Visiting Prado Museum

Visitors in the halls of the Museum Del Prado.
Visitors in the halls of the Museum Del Prado. Photo by Deposit photos.

The Prado Museum is open from 10 AM to 8 PM Monday to Saturday. God bless the Spanish and their late-night lifestyle. No other major art museum in the world is so regularly open that late into the evening. Take advantage of those hours to avoid the crowds which die off after 5 PM. On Sundays and Spanish holidays, the museum is open from 10 AM to 7 PM.

The only days the Prado is closed are Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Spanish Labor Day – May 1.

The museum has limited hours – 10 AM to 2 PM – Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and January 6 – Epiphany.

Adult general admission tickets at the Prado cost 15 Euros; people over 65 pay half that. Anyone under 18 is free.

Also, and this is wonderful, admission to the museum is FREE during its final two open hours except on holidays!

Best Paintings in Prado

An accounting of the best paintings in Prado could extend to 100 entries or more. I’m going to limit this to 10ish – sort of. Paintings by Francisco Goya and Diego Velasquez get their own category.

Consider these the crown jewels. The best of the best.

The Prado Museum has hundreds of paintings and thousands of artworks on view, you can’t possibly regard them all in a single visit, but try not to leave without laying eyes on these. Chances are, you’ll have seen these famous paintings at Prado reproduced elsewhere, but there’s only one place to visit them in person.

How good are the famous paintings in Prado? My list omits masterpieces from Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Esteban Murillo, Anthony van Dyck, Hans Holbein, Lucas Cranach, Rembrandt, Thomas Gainsborough, and Juaqín Sorolla.

Entire books have been written about some of these best paintings in Prado so I’ll provide only brief descriptions with links to more information.

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

Christ is at the center of this massive painting – over 8-feet across – but it’s van der Weyden’s bereft Virgin Mary who steals the show. This is a short list, all time, iconic example of painting from Western Civilization.

Scenes from the Story of Nostagio degli Onesti (1483), Sandro Botticelli

An enormous, multi-panel artwork from the Renaissance master full of unrequited love and gruesome violence which reads like a novel.

The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1500), Hieronymus Bosch

The most famous triptych – three paintings meant for display together – in art history shows Paradise on the left with Adam, Eve and God, an orgiastic bacchanal in the center after humans have discovered sex and pleasure, and a horrifying hellscape of torture on the right side, god’s vengeance upon humans for their wanton depravity.

Bosch ingeniously encased his triptych in additional painted panels with further storytelling.

Bosh’s extraordinary detail and fantastic imagination will leave you transfixed. You could spend an hour in front of this large and magnificent artwork. A short list essential painting to any version of Western Civilization.

Change your life good.

The Fall on the Road to Calvary (1517), Raphael

The Prado Museum has a handful of Raphael paintings; this is the biggest at more than 10-feet tall, and includes the most action with Christ on his knees in the foreground, the crucifix weighing him down, his executioners and female disciples gathered around.

Spain being a devoutly Catholic nation historically ruled by fanatically Catholic monarchs – they were the ones who collected these artworks, often bought and paid for by gold from the “New World” – the best paintings in Prado have a heavily religious bent.

The Triumph of Death (1562-1563), Pieter Brueghel “the Elder”

Another violent, gory artwork. Here, a skeleton army sweeps across a field, laying waste to its human inhabitants.

While the Southern High Renaissance in Italy with Raphael, Da Vinci and Michelangelo is best known for cherubs and Mary’s, the Northern Renaissance in Germany and the Low Countries taking place at the same time was a horror show as imagined by Bosch, Brueghel and contemporaries.

The Knight with His Hand on His Breast (1580), Domenikos Theotokopoulos – El Greco

Nearly every Western art history textbook includes this portrait.

Saint George’s Fight with the Dragon, (1606-1608) & The Three Graces (1630-1635), Peter Paul Rubens

The best paintings in Prado include numerous examples by Peter Paul Rubens. The museum’s astounding holdings of his artworks – hundreds – helped establish its reputation.

Saint George’s Fight with the Dragon defines the Baroque style of painting – bold and dramatic – while his The Three Graces exemplify what would become the adjective, Rubenesque.

The Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Gallery of Paintings in Brussels (1647), David Teniers

A staggeringly detailed painting of paintings.

Self-Portrait (1657), Titian

A number of outstanding choices from Titan to choose from. Let’s go with his self-portrait, a solemn look at the great master. The Bacchanal (1520) and The Emperor Charles V on Horseback, in Mühlberg (1548) could easily take its place on this list.

Queen Johanna the Mad (1877), Francisco Pradilla Ortiz

I was wrecked by “Mad Johanna” upon seeing her in person. I’ve still never seen such a forlorn countenance in any of the thousands of paintings I’ve seen since.

Be sure to spend time on the many other faces in the painting observing her.

Self-Portrait (1498), Adam (1507) and Eve (1507), Albrecht Dürer

A classic example from one of art history’s greatest self-portraitists and iconic renderings of the doomed Biblical pair.

Best Paintings in Prado Museum: Velázquez and Goya

The Prado Museum Madrid highlights are defined by Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez. Both Spaniards, the Prado has the most and finest examples of their work anywhere.

Many art historians consider Velázquez the greatest painter of all time. No argument here. The Prado owns 48 of his artworks, almost 40% of his known production, including the premier examples. A list of best paintings in Prado Museum could include them all.

The museum has even more paintings from Goya – 130. He remains one of my all-time favorites and I could include two dozen of his artworks on this list. Goya, more than any other artist, is responsible for hooking me on art.

Like above, I’m going to try reeling this in to a combined 10 best paintings in Prado Museum from Velázquez and Goya.

A comprehension of Western art history cannot be attained without knowledge of these two artists and you can’t fully appreciate either without a visit to the Prado.

Velázquez paintings at Prado

Las Meninas (1656)

The greatest painting ever? Could be.

Philip IV (1623)

Spain’s King Philip IV was so taken with how Velázquez portrayed him he allowed no one else to do so. Velázquez became first among the court painters and an insider in the Spanish monarchy.

Velázquez would paint many pictures of Philip IV during his reign, all masterpieces.

The Crucified Christ (1632)

Even an atheist like myself can appreciate this sensitive depiction.

The Surrender of Breda (1635)

A massive history painting, 10-by-12 feet, but a bit of Spanish propaganda perhaps? When have you ever seen surrendering soldiers so magnanimous, neigh, grateful, to give over their city?

Goya paintings at Prado

The Naked Maja (1795-1800) & The Clothed Maja (1800-1807)

A classic example of aristocratic hypocrisy. Repressed Catholic Spain forbade the depiction and possession of nudes in artwork, except for their personal collections.

Endless speculation has been offered on who appears in the painting and why Goya painted them.

The Family of Carlos IV (1800)

Every glance, every gesture, every posture in this painting reveals a secret meaning, a hidden relationship, a rumor. Goya’s painting read like a gossip sheet to those in the know about the royal family, its internal dynamics and politics and scandals.

As an example, Goya was a genius, but look at the vacant and frankly stupid expression he puts on the king’s face. What is the artist trying to tell history by doing so?

The 2nd of May 1808 in Madrid (1814) & The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid (1814)

The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid more than any other painting turned me on to the power of art. Look at the face of the man with his hands in the air.

This painting made Goya the first Modern artist. It was the first time the horror of war had been depicted so frankly, brutally, inhumanely, without majesty, heroes or valor. It proved a model for Manet, Picasso and every subsequent painted depiction of conflict.

The Colossus (after 1808), Witches Sabbath (1820-1823), Saturn (1820-1823)

Goya painted his “Black” paintings in old age, into his 70s, an incredibly long life for the time and place. He had long since lost his hearing. He was living alone, isolated. His contempt for the unending sequence of incompetent and cruel monarchs ruling, subjugating and befouling his homeland metastasizing over the decades.

Before witnessing Goya’s Black paintings at The Prado, I had no idea fine art could be so dark, so evil, so brutal, so metal. This was art I could understand, no MFA required. This was a tortured man painting tortured images of a tortured reality. A society bereft of morality, humanity, comfort.

Goya painted these masterpieces on the walls inside his house. They were never meant to be seen by the public. They are undated, unsigned, and only came to “light” after his death.

Do they not speak equally powerful to man’s penchant for violence, barbarity and cruelty expressed across the world today?

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No Comments Yet.