Another addition to the “must visit” list on your next trip to Barcelona has to be the National Art Museum of Catalonia, or MNAC (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya) as it’s locally known.
First off, the location is breathtaking! From the terrace you have an amazing view of Barcelona – you simply must stop for a cup of coffee on the terrace before entering the museum building proper. Speaking of the building, like many nearby Montjuic attractions, it dates from 1929 and was constructed for exhibitions during the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.
Secondly, the museum shelters one of the world’s most important collections of Romanesque art from as early as 11th century. For those who might not know, the Romanesque style spread through Europe around the year 1000 AD, leading directly in to the Gothic period that eventually took over some 300 years later. As the most important pieces of art from the period are typically religious MNAC’s Romanesque collection consists of murals, paintings, sculptures, wooden crucifixes all centered around classic Christian motifs, like the Virgin Mary or scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus.
One of the things I find most fascinating about this collection is that many of the mural paintings are the actual original works! Paintings from churches in the surrounding Pyrenees area were painstakingly removed and brought to the museum for their security and preservation. The churches themselves, Sant Climent de Taull, Sant Juan de Boi, Santa Maria de Taull, were able to replace the originals with identical copies but due to the efforts of researchers and volunteers we’re now able to study these masterpieces in person here in Barcelona.
Moving on from the Romanesque collection we find the museum’s Gothic collection illustrating maybe one of the most brilliant periods of Catalan art. Through our journey in the museum’s halls we’re able to see the gradual transition in style from Romanesque to Gothic. At the beginning the distinction appears muddled; the boundaries between the art and architectural styles are less defined, but over time we see reflection of Gothic period attitudes reflecting more prominently. Before the end of the 10th century, when people were waiting for the (supposedly) apocalyptic year of 1000 AD, the church was trying to keep people under control, living with fear and obedience, when the apocalypse (of course) never arrived there was abrupt shift; the art became colorful and increasingly more secular. We can see this cultural change reflected in the museum’s Gothic and Romanesque collections.
I found this altarpiece, originally belonging in the monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona de les Mojesto, to be quite interesting for many reasons. It depicts a few scenes involving the Corpus Christi (the body of Christ) through several panels. Looking at the details in the center we can see the sanctification of the Corpus Christi, in the top left section we see it’s adoration in the Christian tradition of the Eucharist. The top right shows another scene of the artist’s belief in the power of the Corpus Christi; a man so sick he is bedridden, unable to receive the Eucharist, his body opens to take it.
The lower part of the piece is different, depicting what might be some of the earliest propaganda against the Jews found in Spain. Around 13th century the anti-Semite movement took hold and with it came harsh laws that governed many things including decrees mandating specific cloaks that are seen in this altarpiece. Throughout this scene the Jews are described as sinners, trying to destroy the Eucharist or use it for witchcraft. The Jewish community had a very interesting and difficult story here in Catalonia, a story certainly full of persecution, but growth as well. The remains of the historic Jewish neighborhood are still visible in the city to this day and evidence suggest that community existed before the 7th century up until their expulsion 1492. Through this piece we’re able to see directly the prejudice against the Jewish people and how those beliefs were spread throughout society.
Here is another one of my favorites: an altarpiece showing the legend of Saint Barbara attributed to the painter Gonçal Peris Sarrià. Here the saint is represented with her distinctive attributes; a tower (symbolizing her imprisonment) and a palm leaf traditionally used to denote martyrs.
According to the legend, Barbara was the daughter of a rich pagan who locked her in a tower in order to protect her from the outside world. She converted to Christianity in secret, revealing that by the construction of three windows in her tower, representing the Holly Trinity, instead of two, as her father had ordered. When she refused the marriage her father arranged, deciding instead that she had dedicated her life to Christianity, her father took his sword to kill her, but due to her devotion, she was miraculously transported to a mountain where two shepherds watched their flocks. One of them betrayed her and as a punishment he was turned into stone. The artist shows us the transformed shepherd in black and white; an innovation at that time and a huge challenge for the artist, but not so pleasant for the eye. Barbara was cruelly tortured, but she held true to her faith. Every morning her wounds would heal and torches used to burn her went out as soon as they came near. Finally, her father carried beheads her with his sword and is hit by lightning on the way home. This work of art, aside from being very beautiful, shows us her whole life story, how amazing is that?
As you can imagine every one of these masterpieces has a story like this to tell, giving us a precious window into the the culture of the time… and not just in the Romanesque and Gothic collections that I’ve been writing about here, MNAC has so much more! From Renaissance and Baroque art, with works from El Greco, Antoni Viladomat, Rubens, Velazquez to the modern art collection with Picasso, Antonio Miro, Rusiñol, Casas, and of course Antonio Gaudí. The deeper you dive into this amazing collection of Catalan art the more you realize just how deeply steeped in history each piece is, they all become more fascinating once you know how to read them!