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Conference 2008 Culture

The Pearls of the Prado

According to Nietzsche, the artistic impulse is one of raw chthonic passion that "bursts forth from nature herself." Humans then are not "the true authors of [the] art world" but are compelled to respond to nature's artistic energies as mediators and imitators. One of the largest and finest collections of these artistic "imitations" in the world can be viewed at Madrid's Museo del Prado.

Prado means "meadow," referring to the terrain that Charles III developed in the late eighteenth century into the monumental urban space that is now home to this national museum. In mythical terms, one can imagine Hades' flaming chariot bursting forth from the underworld into the peace of this meadow, stealing Persephone and leaving behind him the seeds of artistic inspiration. These grains would inflame centuries of Spanish artists in whose expert hands they would be transformed into the pearls of the Prado.

Foremost among Spanish masters who practiced in Madrid, and whose work is featured at the Prado, is Diego Velázquez. Born in Seville, Velázquez was given a royal appointment in the court of Philip IV and relocated to Madrid in 1622. Consequently, much of his oeuvre is dignified portraiture of members of the royal court, but mythological themes did at times occupy his artistic imagination. The Drunkards, his satirical scene of open revelry between the god Bacchus and his blithesome mortal devotees, has become one of Velázquez's best loved works.

Bacchus Velazquez

Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), The Drunkards, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

St. Casilda
Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), St. Casilda, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Unlike his contemporary, Velázquez, who died with a comfortable royal pension, Francisco de Zurbarán departed this world penniless and in obscurity. Today, Zurbarán is most famous for his use of chiaroscuro in the manner of Caravaggio, a technique that is prominently expressed in his still-life painting. However, it is Zurbarán's emotive scenes of enrapt ascetics, and his graceful representations of richly costumed women saints that earn him his reputation as one of Spain's great masters.

The conventional religious fervor present in Zurbarán's work is not altogether absent in the poignant art of Francisco de Goya. However, in the post-Enlightenment era in which Goya lived and worked, the Church was no longer the great patron of the arts that it had once been. From this point onward, the artist was "separated both from the religious basis of previous art, and separated from religious meaning by 'grace of reason'."1 This situation has prompted art historian Fred Licht to point to Goya's work as the beginning of modern art.

Goya may also be considered a harbinger of the advent of nihilism a few decades before Nietzsche proclaimed its dawning. Goya, like Nietzsche, became mad in his later years. Freed by his illness from the trammels of painterly convention, Goya painted whatever nightmarish scenes came to his mind. His series of etchings titled, The Disasters of War, and his depictions of cannibalism are among the most disturbing images the artworld has ever produced. Licht has remonstratively called Goya's famed macabre painting, Saturn Devouring His Sons, "the most essential to our understanding of the human condition in modern times."2

Goya's later work should not be dismissed as the musings of a madman, but recognized as the outpourings of a human conscience rebelling against the atrocities of a world bereft of meaning and virtue. Is this abnegation of violence and quest for meaning essential to what makes us human? Join Metanexus in Madrid for our 9th annual conference as we explore this and other profound questions of what it means to be a person in our rapidly evolving and complex world. While partaking of the pearls of wisdom shared at this unique academic gathering, you might also take the opportunity to relish the pearls of artistic brilliance on display at the nearby Museo del Prado.

Goya Witches

Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), The Witches Flight, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

1 Nicholas Orsini, review of Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, by Fred Licht, Leonardo, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Winter, 1982): 77.

2 Fred Licht, Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, (New York: Universe Books, 1979), 167.


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