GABRIEL CANO- After my fifth class field trip to the Prado Museum, I begrudgingly realized that Baby Jesus paintings were beginning to grow on me. Walking through the Prado’s vast hallways and side rooms, its walls overwhelmed with artistic masterpieces ranging through over a thousand years of history, I see Baby Jesus everywhere! From observing El Greco’s “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” to taking in Diego Velazquez’s “Adoration of the Magi,” to marveling over Titian’s…”Adoration of the Magi” (sigh), it’s evident that classic artists loved painting normal people admiring the holiest infant that ever lived.
In all seriousness, during my first few program classes of Discovering the Prado Museum, I was a bit disappointed by the course material. The selection of art in the Prado contains nothing newer than works from the 19th century. I could appreciate the training and skill it took to make these pretty paintings, but at the time they all seemed so objective—just straight-forward portraits of random European lords, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus (of course). Growing up, I had always been more of a fan of modern art, pieces from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miro. These pieces are very creative, beautiful, and profound—one could interpret their symbols and messages in many different ways. After the first two weeks of this hands-on art history class, I remember longing to be in a “Discovering the Reina Sofía” class (the Reina Sofía is the pre-eminent modern art museum in Madrid, which contains “Guernica,” possibly the world’s most important piece of 20th century art). That class does not exist in the program curriculum, so I reluctantly resigned myself to sticking it out for the rest of the semester.
A few weeks and a few Baroques later, I’m very happy I decided to stick on the Prado train. Professor Torija’s informative and passionate guides around the museum have helped me begin to look at classical art in an altogether different way. The aspect of these painting I now appreciate most is that they were the equivalent of photography during that era. Indeed, some of these pieces by Velázquez and Rembrandt are so hyper-realistic as to almost be mistaken for real images. It is the closest thing the people of today have to a visual portal of how people lived hundreds of years ago. I am fascinated by observing the different artistic periods, comparing their ever changing perceptions of life and beauty. What did the buildings and landscapes look like? What weapons did the soldiers use? What clothing did the royals wear? —the ruffs around the necks of the wealthy changed width based on the style of the century. In many ways, all these visual details convey more than a mere history textbook ever could.
Setting aside the historical portraits, battle scenes, and landscape paintings, allow me to come back to the religious works. That’s right, the Jesus pieces. Whether or not you hold a Christian background, it’s easy to soak in the raw, universal emotion derived from the characters in the art. I’m thinking specifically of Rogier van der Weyden’s “The Escorial Deposition” (or Descent from the Cross), pictured with this blog post. In the composition, dead Jesus is being taken off the cross by a bunch of saints, while Mary is sobbing below. I don’t think I have ever seen a more compelling and gripping artistic portrayal of grief in my life. The painting shook me to my core, and if I experience anything close to that in another class, then that class will have been more than worth the time.