one big basilica

You could almost be forgiven for strolling past the Basilica of San Francisco el Grande without giving it a second glance.  Though it’s the largest dome in Spain – larger than St. Paul’s in London even – its main facade faces the intersection of the Gran Vía de San Francisco and the Carrera de San Francisco in what is essentially a traffic circle.  Add to that a high steel fence and the incumbent swirl of motorist garbage that it collects, I wouldn’t call it the most inviting of entrances. But passing it by would be a shame as inside there is a magnificent chapel painted by Goya and a secret stash of  art that can be seen at unbelievably close range.  This is one of those rare times where not speaking the local language actually helps.  Claim total ignorance of Spanish and the tour guide will show you how to operate the lights on your own.  Let the Spanish-language tour get started then bolt straight for the altar and nick in through the doors on the left.  Turn the lights on and off like you’ve been instructed and self-guide your way through the Basilica’s private rooms, which are literally crammed with art.  Eventually you’ll make your way to an opulent room where the church superiors once met – the Renaissance-era sculpted-walnut seats are one of those marvels of craftsmanship that define the enlightened times.  As you find yourself looping back to the opposite side of the altar however, you’ll find the star attraction:  Zurburán’s painting of St. Thomas Aquinas. No protective glass, no barriers, the painting is so close you could reach out and touch it. It’s so still – and quiet – that even a confirmed non-believer can’t help but grow contemplative looking at the great scholar as seen by the great artist.




goya’s last palette

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando is one of the more discrete and under appreciated museums in Madrid.  And that’s a huge plus to anyone exhausted from the unending crowds jostling for viewing space at the Prado or Rena Sofia museums.  The permanent collection includes a good number of masterworks, too, with particular attention paid to Zurburán, Ribera, and the drawings of Picasso, who was once a student at the Academy. Goya was a member from 1780 onwards and the Neoclassical building boasts thirteen of his paintings, including two self-portraits and the famous carnival scene known as the Burial of the Sardine. A series of six paintings grouped together as Children’s Games are perfect examples of the artist’s vivid and spontaneous style but what I found most intriguing – aside from the quiet – was a display of Goya’s last palette.


in prada at the prado

You could visit Madrid for the Museo del Prado alone and not leave disappointed, as few galleries in the world have as rich a collection of masterpieces. Drawn from the former Spanish Royal Collection, the walls of the 18th-century Palacio de Villanueva are adorned with more than 3,000 paintings by the great Spanish and European masters.  Goya and Velázquez may be the dramatic focal points, however, Ribera, Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Zurburan – one of my favorites – somehow manage to share the spotlight. I must confess a prior ignorance of José de Ribera, the 17th-century Spanish painter who spent the majority of his professional life in Italy. Influenced by Caravaggio’s naturalism, he was one of the pillars on which Spanish painting was built. (who knew?) From landscapes and mythological scenes to portraits and religious paintings, Ribera was as precise and detailed as a draughtsman. His later works – like St. Sebastian below – are also stunning in their luminosity. And for me, a very fortuitous Madrid discovery.




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