An American in Spain, part 2: Art and Egypt in Madrid

Part 2 of a photo travelogue of my recent trip to Spain with my wife and her family.

Though my wife and I had arrived in Spain smoothly on Thursday the 29th of March, things didn’t go so well for her family.  My sister-in-law (SIL), mother-in-law (MIL) and niece-in-law #2 (NIL2) were supposed to fly in the same day from Cleveland.  However, the connecting flight from Cleveland to Newark was inexplicably delayed, causing them to miss their Madrid connection.  Further screw-ups by United Airlines (yeah, I’m calling you out by name) resulted in the trio being stranded overnight in Newark.  Their bags would be lost along the way, as well, and wouldn’t all catch up to us until we reached Seville several days later.

In the meantime, my wife and I found ourselves with another half-day by ourselves.  We decided to visit the Museo del Prado, the main Spanish national art museum, to pass the morning.  (We didn’t think the rest of the family was particularly interested in spending time in a museum, though we were wrong.)

The entrance to the Museo del Prado.

The Prado is an amazing art museum.  There are 7600 paintings, 1000 sculptures, 4800 prints and 8200 drawings in the collection, though only some 1300 are on display.  The museum was opened in 1819 as the Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures by King Ferdinand VII at the encouragement of his wife, Queen María Isabel de Braganza. The museum’s initial purpose was to demonstrate that Spanish art was the equal to that of any other country, and the collection therefore began heavily tilted towards Spanish painters, with the works drawn from the King’s collection.  It is still the greatest collection of Spanish art in the world, with many important works by Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya.

I was particularly excited to visit the Prado: it houses some of the most bizarre and disturbing pieces of artwork, at least two of which I included in my blog post on Madness on canvas: art in horror fiction.  Of course, I wasn’t able to take photos in the museum, but I thought I’d share some of my favorite paintings via Wikipedia.

Saturn devouring his son, by Francisco Goya, c. 1819 (source).

Late in life, Francisco Goya purchased a house near Madrid with the charming name Quinta del Sordo (Villa of the Deaf Man).  Apparently concerned with his own mortality and made cynical by the ongoing political turmoil in Spain, he ended up painting a series of fourteen paintings of dark color and tone directly on the walls of the house, now known as the Black Paintings.  After Goya’s death, the paintings were transferred to canvas an now reside in the Prado.

This one in particular is assumed to represent the myth of the titan Cronus (romanticized to Saturn) devouring his children.  Cronus feared a prophecy that foretold that he would be overthrown by one of his progeny, so he ate each of them upon birth.  However, Cronus’ wife Rhea deceived him on the birth of the sixth child, Zeus, handing him a stone to devour instead.  Zeus ended up overthrowing Cronus, thus making the prophecy ironically self-fulfilling.

The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Brughel, c. 1562 (source).

This delightfully disturbing painting contains countless depictions of people being assaulted and murdered by an army of the dead.  Clearly a metaphor for the inevitability of death, it gets more disturbing the longer you study its details.

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500 (source).

This triptych most likely depicts the fall of man and the consequences of sins of the flesh.  The left panel shows God introducing Adam and Eve, while the middle panel shows people in a fantastical landscape engaged in carnal acts.  The right panel, and the most iconic one (featured even in The Simpsons), shows the consequences of such immoral acts: an eternity in Hell.

At least one other image had a special significance to me, in the context of science history.

The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya, 1814 (source).

In late 1807, Emperor Napoleon of France sent troops into Spain ostensibly as part of an alliance to conquer and divide Portugal.  However, Napoleon really had designs on Spain, and in February of 1808 he ordered his troops already in country to seize key fortresses and officially occupied Spain.  On the second of May, madrileños rose up against the French, which triggered a brutal crackdown on the third of May in which many residents of Madrid were executed.  This massacre was painted by Goya in 1814, and those who read my blog may remember that this was the event that put François Arago‘s life in danger and thrust him into adventure.

The shadow of Napoleon’s invasion of Spain is darkens a lot of its history, and left a permanent mark on much of the country, as the next painting illustrates.

El fusilamiento de Torrijos y sus compañeros en la playa de Málaga, Antonio Gisbert, 1888 (source).

At a young age, Jose Maria Torrijos y Uriarte took part in the 2nd of May resistance of 1808 against Napoleon, and very narrowly avoided being executed on the 3rd.  By the end of the Peninsular War and the repulsion of Napoleon, Torrijos had attained the rank of brigadier general.

The end of the war resulted in the reinstatement of the Bourbon monarchy, a bitter disappointment to those who wanted a liberal and democratic government.  He attempted twice to spark revolution; the first time, he was exiled from the country.  When he returned a second time in 1831, he landed with compatriots at the beach of Málaga but they were quickly apprehended.  The order came back to execute them all; Gisbert’s painting commemorates Torrijos’ memory and bravery.

There were so many wonderful paintings at the Prado, and one more pair by Goya is worth mentioning: the two Majas.

La maja desnuda, Francisco Goya, c. 1797 (source).

La maja vestida, Francisco Goya, 1803.

The identity of the model in the paintings is not known for certain, as is the reason for their creation (i.e. were they commisioned? By whom?).  The nude Maja was clearly quite shocking for its time, and in 1815 the Spanish Inquisition summoned Goya to demand the identity of the person who commissioned it.  (There is no record of what he said.)

As you may have surmised, Goya is a major figure in Spanish art.  On the way out of the Prado, I took a picture of a statue dedicated to him; note the elegant incorporation of Goya’s work into the pedestal.

Statue of Goya, outside of the Museo del Prado.

Madrid is such a lovely city!  Even the walk back from the museum to the Metro station along the Paseo del Prado was lovely; I photographed this fountain in the long park that lines the street.

Fountain along the Paseo del Prado.

Remember the travel troubles of my in-laws?  By the time we returned from the Prado, SIL, MIL and NIL2 had finally arrived in Madrid, after their extended stay in Newark.  NIL1 also arrived by train from Granada, so we were all together at last.  However, because the luggage did not follow them from Newark, our remaining part of the day was spent shopping for “backup clothing”.

We started off at the Puerta del Sol, now free of protesters but full of activity.

The Puerta del Sol in the afternoon.

We would see a lot of Sol during our stay.  It is the center of the Metro system, and  also a good starting point for exploring a lot of Madrid.  It is also the best place to look for cheap souvenirs!

The shopping took several hours!  By the end of it, all of us were quite exhausted; however, there was one more landmark I wanted to see that was close to our hotel, and so I broke away from the rest of the group to visit the Temple of Debod.

The Temple of Debod, in the Parque del Oeste.

This beautiful Egyptian temple dates back to the 2nd century B.C.E. and dedicated to the god Amun.  It was donated to Spain by the Egyptian government in 1968, in thanks for Spain’s assistance in moving other monuments to protect them from being submerged after the completion of the Aswan High Dam.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how lively the area around the temple was, even in the early evening; it is clearly a place for people of all ages to hang out, read a book, or go for a stroll.

The Temple is on a high hill overlooking the west of Madrid; from there I had an excellent view of Almudena Cathedral.

Almudena Cathedral, as viewed from the Temple of Debod.

With that, I headed back to the hotel for some rest!  We would go out to dinner later at the Plaza Mayor again before settling in completely for the night.  The next day, we would visit the Royal Palace and one of the most magnificent city parks in the world… but that is a story for the next post!

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4 Responses to An American in Spain, part 2: Art and Egypt in Madrid

  1. Madrid is one of our favorite cities! But we’ve never been to the Parque del Oeste; we’ll have to correct that oversight next time we go.
    If you eat seafood, there is a very plain, no-frills place that serves enormous platters of cold steamed mixed seafood for 30 EUR. Ah, the Ribiera do Mino,

  2. mikemonaco says:

    Wow, quite a museum. I’ve loved ‘The triumph of death’ since I first saw it (inverted and cropped as the album cover for Balck Sabbath’s greatest hits! … I think the painting (and other works of Breughel and Bosch) were pillaged for the designs of the ‘Valley of four winds’ game (by Games Workshop) and miniatures (by Minifigs —

    • Interesting! I can totally see the resemblance between the miniatures and the painting. As you noted in your blog post, it would be really awesome to see a diorama made of the painting.

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