Monday, June 25, 2012

The Prado Again, After 41 Years

I first visited Madrid when I was 19 years old, and most of what I remember about the city still hangs in the Museo del Prado 41 years later, just as it did then. The Gran Via and the Puerta del Sol are much hotter than they were then (it was February). And today they are overrun with tourists, performance artists, and (despite my recent post about Spanish family values) hookers. On side streets you can see punks galore and the occasional strung-out junkie, as Marian and I did on our way to Mass last night.

But on the walls of the Prado, at the center of the city, the saints of Ribera and El Greco and Zurbarán still hang in the cool and quiet. I fell in love with these pictures of saints 41 years ago; they were some of the first paving stones forming a path that led me to the Catholic Church. Why had no one ever told me about their pictures in Episcopal Sunday school? Ribera's portraits of the Apostles alone moved me as no art, religious or otherwise, had moved me before that time.

I walked the Prado today with my sketchbook, looking for images that struck my heart. I am no artist, but museums do not allow photography and I have found that a rudimentary two-minute sketch will bring my experience of a painting back as well as anything. I wanted to hold on to experiences like "Christ Embracing St. Bernard" by Ribalta, or "The Apparition of St. Peter to St. Peter Nolasco" by Zurbarán (pictured above).

I was repeatedly drawn to, and I repeatedly drew, religious paintings like these. The "Las Meninas" of Velázquez is considered the Prado's most important holding, and it is showcased at the center of the main floor. Of course, it's a tour de force of perspective and multiple perspectives, but it touches the brain not the soul. Like so much of the secular art in the Prado, "Las Meninas" does little more than show off royalty to itself. With the clever use of a mirror, the Velázquez takes this "showing off" to a ridiculous extreme.

With my iPad interface here in Europe, I can't post pictures, but Google some of these paintings. You'll be glad you did. The Ribalta. The Zurbarán. "San José con el Niño" by Martinez and "The Martyrdom of St. Philip" by Ribera. Then there are all the El Grecos in the Prado collection, including a Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Pentecost that were all originally used as altar art!

Since the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, art and music have divorced themselves from faith, but the great works are still those that serve something higher than royal or artistic vanity. For my money, you can throw all of twentieth-century literature on one side of the scale and it won't outbalance the stories of Flannery O'Connor.

Today at the Prado, stunning religious art reminded me again why I am a Catholic.

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