Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado is filled with bracing, demanding beauty

The paintings on the walls of the Prado are a glorious rebuttal to cultural flattening and commodification—as well as a rebuttal to the idea that we can ever make life truly “equitable.”

The entrance of Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. (Image: Emilio J. Rodríguez Posada/Wikipedia)

People usually rave about the Met. Many consider it, not without justification, to house the world’s greatest art collection. While Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado is also considered one of the world’s best art museums, its range of artwork is more limited than New York’s vaunted Metropolitan Museum of Art. But I would argue that the Prado’s smaller scope actually gives it an edge over the Met.

As you wander through the Prado’s labyrinth of rooms, you are immersed in a succession of centuries-old paintings rendered by Catholic Spaniards and Italians, as well as by Protestant northern Europeans, depicting potent Christian images and themes—read, the perils of lust and gluttony, the inevitability of aging, sickness and death—all in the most astonishing detail. The narrower “focus”, for want of a better word, results in far more punch.

From Hieronymus Bosch’s absurdly surreal warnings about giving in to carnality as depicted in “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (1490-1500), to El Greco’s surreal renditions of Christ’s life and death—I can’t ever recall seeing a white dove screaming down in a fiery trail like a Stucka dive bomber—the viewer is left feeling stripped bare, vulnerable, and most humbled through the shared humanity that these painters so unabashedly parsed through their paint brushes.

These artists didn’t shy away from inevitable and unpleasant truths. In “The Ages of Woman and Death” (1541-1544), by Hans Baldung Grien, a particularly emaciated-looking Death has hooked his arm around the arm of an old woman. She at the same time is trying to pull along a voluptuous young lady brimming with health and vitality. Suffice to say the younger woman looks perturbed. Encountering the painting, whether the viewer is female or male, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to place yourself (or former younger self) in the place of that vibrant young woman, or to place your current or future older self in the place of the withered older woman.

In “The Triumph of Death” (1562-1563), by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the viewer is confronted with a hellish and riotous scene as an army of skeletons runs amok and razes the Earth and its inhabitants:

“In the foreground, Death leads his armies from his reddish horse, destroying the world of the living,” states the Prado’s website. “The latter are led to an enormous coffin with no hope for salvation. All of the social institutions are included in this composition and neither power nor devotion can save them. Some attempt to struggle against their dark destiny while others are resigned to their fate. Only a pair of lovers, at the lower right [of the picture], remains outside the future they too will have to suffer.”

The main exhibition hall on the first floor of Museo del Prado (Image: Schnäggli/Wikipedia)


Then there is the Execution of Torrijos and his Companions on the Beach at Malaga (1888), by Antonio Gisbert Pérez, “unarguably one of the most beautiful of all 19th-century Spanish history paintings.” I won’t argue with that assessment. The huge painting stopped me in my tracks—and it was very hard to move on. Jose Maria Torrijos was a famous Spanish soldier. He made several attempts to revolt against Ferdinand VII’s absolutist monarchy. His last attempt saw him and his band of men tricked by the governor of Malaga who promised Torrijos success in his rebellion if he and his men sailed from the safety of British-governed Gibraltar to Malaga. Their boat was boarded and captured by the governor’s forces. After being imprisoned for a few days, and with no trial, Torrijos and his men were executed by firing squad on the beach at Malaga.

As with many of the Prado’s offerings, much of this painting’s power comes from “its extraordinary and severe simplicity.” Gisbert confronts the viewer with “the enormous emotional tension immediately before the execution and the different sentiments of those who are about to die, reflected in their faces as mixtures of concern, dejection and rage in some; proud resignation or emotional embraces in others and defiant effrontery or desperate prayers.” The viewer is left pondering how he would face such an unfair and enforced death. Furthermore, while Torrijos and his companions are in the agonizing position of facing an early and inescapable death that has been unjustly forced upon them, each of us will ultimately face a death at a time we cannot predict nor prevent. And just as Gisbert shows us “the different reactions of human souls to the awareness of their imminent end, which is grippingly palpable as they contemplate their companions lying dead at their feet,” whom among us does not have companions who have already died, whose memories lie at our feet every day? We know that eventually it will be our turn to have to stand on Malaga beach, and while it should occur in a more peaceful scenario, similarly there will be no recourse to any form of terrestrial intervention to prevent nature’s own firing squad that is old age and the body having had enough.

In short, the Prado makes for an often rather bracing reality check, thanks to its artists depicting the uncomfortable truths about being human. Nowadays, it is increasingly easy to forget or not pay attention to our true condition—hence the corollary of the reminder being all the ruder when one sees it presented so starkly—due to the proliferation of endless and vapid distractions.

“The early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false,” Aldous Huxley wrote in Brave New World Revisited, his 1957 comparison of the modernizing world of the time with his prophetic fantasy rendered in 1932 in his most famous dystopian novel. “They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies—the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

Back in 1957, Huxley was contending with a media landscape of television, radio, and cinema. Now the burgeoning mass communications industry is bolstered exponentially by the internet and non-stop 24-hour news cycles, accompanied by undreamed-of distractions such as Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, while AI chatbot technology is gaining momentum. Amid all that, it’s not surprising people are missing the wood for the trees.

It’s not just having those inalienable human truths—both the good, the bad and the ugly—presented so starkly that makes for an unsettling experience in the Prado. It’s also the exquisite craftsmanship, skill, and imagination behind it all. Did members of our same species really manage to render such astonishing detail, expertise and creativity simply with their bare hands combined with their vision and imagination? Back in the 1500s, of course, you couldn’t pick up a magazine for inspiration, stream some classical music to fire the creative juices ,or hop online to see what other artists were doing. What many painters back then did have, though, were patrons and donors—many of whom would have been serious about religion and faith, and interested in related topics—who supported artists financially in the long term. This meant said artists could devote their lives to their art, constantly experimenting, improvising and improving their craft: with astonishing results.

That just doesn’t happen often now, bar a small coterie of “celebrated” and hyped-about artists producing what the market rewards—and it’s often not at all that nice to look at. We are told that it is daringly “provocative.” That’s more often than not a euphemism for covering up what is in fact ugly, banal, and lacking craftsmanship and ingenuity. The “edginess” that is so lauded today appears to preclude the provocative and revisionist artists of the moment from ever taking an edgy approach to the universal themes of human life that all of us have a stake in and should be interested in—love, parenthood, ageing and death—and which the artists of old engaged with so powerfully. It’s a seismic shift—which just a single lap of the Prado will confirm.

“Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly too,” as the late British philosopher Roger Scruton succinctly put it in 2009. “The images of brutality and destruction in modern art, the tales of vicious and repugnant ways of life in today’s novels, the violent and harrowing music of our age—all these are forms of egotism, ways in which insignificant people draw attention to themselves by standing ostentatiously apart from the majority of us who crave beauty.”

Increasingly, today’s art constrains itself to only engaging with trendy platitudes about minority rights and identity, further fueling reductionist claims that we are all simply automatons of gender, race, and ethnicity. It is a state of affairs that now extends across the entire canon of human artistic endeavors, encompassing classical music, theatre, opera. As a result, some warn, an entire generation is being propagandized to turn its back on its heritage.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. (Image: Wikipedia)

“We are teaching students to view our artistic legacy through the crippling, poisonous lens of race and sex,” Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of When Race Trumps Merit, says in the Spectator’s Americano podcast. “We are giving them an excuse [to] turn their backs on what I would argue is one of the most sublime sources of beauty.”

Mac Donald notes the fragility of the “ties that bind one generation to the other,” and how it was the 20th-century British philosopher Michael Oakeshott who said that the purpose of school is to pass on from one generation to another the legacy that is civilization’s inheritance.

“When we stop doing that, I fear that Milton dies,” Mac Donald says. “When we stop reading these authors—they die, when we stop listening to these works—they die; they live through us.”

Mac Donald is particularly scathing about a recent “provocative” exhibition at New York’s Met. Organized around a single object—the marble bust Why Born Enslaved! by the 19th century French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux—the “Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast” exhibition takes the sculptor to task for the affrontery, apparently, of offering an anti-slavery message while being a white man.

“[The] exhibit is arguing that abolitionist art, emancipationist art, is white supremist art—that any time a white person, a white artist portrays a black slave, he is arguing that the natural condition of Blacks is slavery,” Mac Donald says (with immense exasperation in in her voice, if you listen to the podcast). “It is an exhibit that requires in order to put forth its completely counter-factual thesis—requires the dismantling of every aspect of the Western art tradition.”

This leads her to argue in a separate article for City Journal that the Met is betraying its “civilizational responsibilities” and stoking hatred. “For a century and a half, donors gave it art that responds to our yearning for sublimity and that teaches us to see beauty in the everyday,” Mac Donald says. “Now the museum wants to expose the alleged racist subtexts of those works. The hate that it spreads within its walls reinforces the hate spreading throughout society.”

Freddy Gray, the ever-optimistic host of Americano, suggests to Mac Donald that once the situation in the arts world becomes so bad, people “just won’t go.” Then, he suggests hopefully, the “business model of it will collapse entirely,” while “things that are good and do seem great regardless of race and so on will always appeal to people.”

But MacDonald is not so hopeful. The revisionist and canceling trends are getting so dire, she wonders whether we will end up going through something like what happened in the Middle Ages—when the monasteries preserved Western civilization—with, she says, “our monks somewhere transcribing these works and keeping them alive.”

As much as we like to think we are “progressing”, when it comes to making genuinely beautiful art with imaginative flair that speaks to the soul—not to mention all the other forms of artistry being suffocated by cancel culture and its accompanying sanitizing social justice activists—we appear to be going backward and regressing to a darker age.

“The work of what we have come to call Progress is the work of homogenizing the world,” Paul Kingsnorth writes in an essay titled “Who will stand against Progress?”

“I capitalize the word because Progress is an ideology — even a metaphysics — and if we want to understand it we need to grasp its foundational assumptions.” Kingsnorth describes how “we are trained from birth to see the living world and its people as a matrix of interchangeable parts, all of them potentially for sale.” Whether it be our bodies, our nations, our heritage: “Progress will not stop until everything is measured, commercialized, commodified, altered at the genetic level, put up for sale, forced into ‘equitable’ relationships with everything else, or otherwise flattened and sold.”

The paintings on the walls of the Prado are a glorious rebuttal to such flattening and commodification—as well as a rebuttal to the idea that we can ever make life truly “equitable.” Life wouldn’t be life were it not for the “unfairness” of death and its cruel handmaidens of illness and aging, that vital paradox that gives life—and beauty—its inherent value and meaning. Not to mention how the human condition is riven with inequity by default—“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” as Philo of Alexandria put so well—the tragedy of which is what, at the same time, paradoxically (again) bestows life with such majesty.

The artists whose work resides at the Prado could see that, and they knew how to paint that. It’s well worth a visit to see and to be reminded of that brave fact in contrast to the direction that so much art is taking today.

“The Descent from the Cross” (c. 1435) by Rogier van der Weyden. (Image: Wikipedia)

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About James Jeffrey 5 Articles
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist, writer and Camino guide who splits his time between the US, the UK, the Iberian Peninsula and further afield Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: For more on the Camino go to


  1. #1. A powerfully prophetic article. Hope we read more here from this writer.

    “2. In a culture of State-sponsored censorship and propagandist group-think, don’t be surprised if sometime in the near future there are attempts to systematically destroy all the art housed in the great museums of the world. “Unthinkable”, you say. Really? Then contemplate the destruction of human life globally by abortion. Think about a society that allows minors to mutilate their genitals and secondary sex characteristics by surgical alteration. It’s a wonder to me that the destruction of our artistic patrimony in museums has not already begun.

    #3. If you’ve never been to the Prado, the Met, the National Gallery, the British museums, the Louvre, the Uffizzi, etc.,you better get there soon as it’s unlikely that in today’s cultural climate of decontructivist ideas they’ll be around in the future.

    #4. The Prado was on my lifelong bucket list ever since my college days when I was introduced to its magnificent holdings. I’m glad that four years ago, my wife and I were fortunate to get there.

    • Should the trajectory remain as it is the only thing which will save our cultural patrimony — visual, theatrical, literary, musical, will be their economic value. We are in the hands of Philistines in both Church and society and have been for far longer than any of us would care to admit.

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  1. Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado is filled with bracing, demanding beauty – Via Nova
  2. Good looks: "Unveiling the Prado: Uncover the Inventive Treasures of Madrid's Museo Nacional del Prado, Awe-Inspiring Good looks at Each and every Flip!" - Glamour Fashion

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