The largest art museum in the world, the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, houses a collection of 8,600 paintings; only 2,000 are on display at any time. The Prado became a reality in 1819 through the efforts of King Fernando VII. In its history, the paintings have been moved several times, during the Spanish Civil War and then World War II. Protected by state-of-the-art technology, the masterpieces are exhibited in two adjacent buildings, the Villanueva Building and the Cason del Buen Retiro.
As with so many works by the masters, the subject of this painting is often debated. Some think the painting shows Artemisia the wife of Mausolus, the satrap of Caria in Asia Minor. Within the painting she is seen drinking the ashes of her husband, thereby entombing him within herself. However, others claim it shows Sophonisba taking a cup of poison. No matter what the subject is, what is known is that the model is Saskia, Rembrant's wife.
Albrecht Dürer: Self-Portrait
Albrecht Dürer's 1498 self-portrait hangs in the Villanueva building, room 55B. The painting is considered a masterpiece because of its rich details, gold-tone color scheme and precise drawing. The painting shows Dürer from the waist up, next to a window that looks out over the mountains. Wearing aristocratic clothing, Dürer's severe gaze displays his intent to show off his social standing. The painting was acquired by Felipe IV.
Francisco de Goya: La Maja Desnuda
Goya's Majas are two of the artist's most famous and controversial masterpieces. The pair of paintings depicts a young woman reclined on a couch; in one painting she is clothed and in the other, otherwise an exact replica, completely nude. In its simplicity, the painting makes no pretense of being anything but the rendering of a naked woman lying on a couch. The mystery of the paintings revolves around who the young woman is and who commissioned the paintings. Historians have assumed the paintings were for Minister Manuel Godoy, Goya's patron. Other theories say the woman is the Duchess of Alba. Goya was called before the Spanish Inquisition to disclose for whom the painting was created.
Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas
Las Meninas is a quandary of a painting, as it offers an almost infinite number of interpretations. At first glance the painting seems to be straightforward, but further study reveals the artist himself in the painting, standing at an easel, painting the scene, but from a different angle. When studying the painting one wonders, what is Velázquez painting? Where was the artist standing to properly recreate the scene with himself in it? There is also a small image of the royal couple, reflected in what must be a mirror, which brings up the question: where in the room were they standing to appear as a reflection? This painting is part adventure, part mystery, and a great example of artistic mastery.
Titian: Charles V at Mühlberg
This 1548 painting commemorates the emperor's victory at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547 and is considered one of Titian's most monumental and dramatic portraits. Apart from the creation of such a memorable work of art, the artist shows his consummate abilities and skill with textures, especially in the diffusion of the setting sunlight and the glow of the armor.