A must for anyone who wants say that they have been in Madrid is a visit to the Museo del Prado. If any of our readers or listeners do it, I’m sure they would like have a different perspective when visiting its rooms. Join me on a brief tour of this great art gallery through the eyes of a wine lover. We will not do a thorough scan of all works that in some way or another have wine as protagonist; that would be impossible. This is a personal proposal, sometimes a bit whimsical, but I think quite significant.
Let’s start our tour honoring the god Dionysus, or Bacchus as the Romans called him, the God of Wine, who we have already spoken on other occasions. Let’s stop in front of the marble bust of the beautiful and serene Antinous of Bithynia, the young man who was elevated to God by Emperor Hadrian himself, who was his lover, and on this occasion is represented as the god Dionysus. A little hint: see the small horns coming out of his forehead representing him as a faun or satyr, meaning therefore ‘of god’. Although the museum has many other representations of Bacchus, this is certainly my favourite.
Although representations of Bacchus have not always been so flattering. The anonymous Baco accompanied by nymphs and satyrs, XVII century, shows an obese and deformed being, almost repulsive, like the one Cornelis de Vos shows in The Triumph of Bacchus. Or in Autumn of Mariano Salvador Maella, where we have a Bacchus with heavy eyes, raising his glass and saluting the audience. On his face we can notably feel the effects of a monumental binge.
But if there’s a painting of the God of Wine that you should not miss, it is The Feast of Bacchus by Velazquez. The main character is Bacchus, one of the artist’s first male nudes, dominates the composition with the brightness of his body and his clothes. On his left a naked satyr raises a fine crystal goblet and places us in the world of myths, while on the right a beggar and four men in brown cloaks, with leathery faces and tipsy expressions, constitute a truthful and realistic counterpoint. Before them is the figure of a young man, kneeling as he is being crowned by the God, perhaps receiving the gift of the artistic creation. Isn’t wine a way of creation? Wine not only has the ability to brighten the spirits of men and lead to non-rational states, but is a stimulus for creation, a vehicle.
As we know, the followers of God celebrate the pleasures of the flesh and the sacred liquid in what is known as Bacchanalia. The effects of wine in the body induced Dionysian ecstasy, as we can see in the Dionysian Dance, a marble relief that describes the cult of Dionysus. It was considered something dangerous but its value as a means of escaping for a few hours from the strict discipline of civic life was also appreciated. The maenad’s ecstatic dance and the leaping satyr playing with a glass of wine are impressively rendered. A similar event was painted by Titian in The Andrians in the XVI century. Gods, men and children join the celebration of the effects of wine. My favourite character is the young man who observes the wine against the light, a classical wine tasting. Enjoy the scene: naked bodies, frolicking, dancing, drinking … is there a better plan for a Saturday night?
Be sure not to miss the chaotic The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day by Pieter Bruegel “The Elder” (16th century), the Bacchanal by Nicolas Poussin (17th century) or the two canvases Offering to Bacchus and Bacchanal of Michel-Ange Houasse to see how the wine world and its pernicious effects are celebrated.
One piece that always jumps out at me is the politically incorrect Children Bacchanal by the Dane Keil, 17th century, who shows in this canvas three children who seem to be indulging in the pleasures of wine. Look at the bottle, covered with straw or esparto rope from the base to the neck, known as a Pilgrim bottle, precisely because it’s particularly easy to carry and to accompany pilgrims during the long way. A little later, from the porcelain Factory of Niderviller, we have a piece, also called Infantile Bacchanal, showing a group of children naked or with sheepskins on their back, crowned by garlands of leaves and carrying bunches of grapes, playing happily.
Although if you want to face a real politically incorrect topic, see this painting by Luca Giordano: Lot intoxicated by his daughters, where due to the lack of men on earth, the daughters intoxicate their father to lie with them and ensure offspring to propagate the race. Hey, just a moment, it’s not me, it’s the Bible: Genesis 19, 31-35.
But let’s keep our feet on the ground and leave aside these mythological scenes. Let’s use the museum as a time machine to transport us to ancient times to see how the townspeople enjoyed wine as the great master Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, or just ‘Goya’, did. Goya painted during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In his The Grape Harvest or Autumn, we can see how the harvest should be in those days. A young man dressed in yellow, offers a bunch of grapes to a young lady, a child tries to catch it, but it seems that these are reserved only for adults. As children we all felt that same curiosity for the precious liquid. Behind them is a peasant carrying a basket full of grapes on her head. In the background, peasants working in the fields, busily collecting the fruit. The silhouette of the mountains in the background reminds us of the Sierra de Gredos. Is that one of the very first Wines of Madrid or perhaps it’s from Méntrida? Vinos de la Tierra de Castilla y León, perhaps?
Goya also left us The Drinker, where a young man sitting in the shade of trees is drinking wine from a boot with certain gluttony, while the boy accompanying him, looking thoughtfully at the viewers, is eating a turnip. Not a very solemn moment, but very significant of the society of the time, hungry and thirsty, roguish and somewhat shameless. Remember when I told you that my grandfather kept wine in a boot? Well, here it’s a clear example that Spain has been doing it for a long time. Moreover, in Still life with melon and figs, apples, wineskin and snack basket in a landscape by Luis Egidio Meléndez, you can see one of them in much more detail.
Goya left us countless scenes of those times, a great way to discover how the Spanish people of the late 18th century lived. Look at The Threshing Ground or Summer painting. Goya depicts this season with a scene of harvesters recovering from the summer heat by sitting beside a pile of recently harvested wheat sheafs. On the left a group of peasants try to inebriate another character whose clothing and stance define him as a typical character: the village idiot.
Or stop in front of The Picnic, also Goya’s. You’ll see how young people enjoyed to go picnicking by the banks of the Manzanares River on the outskirts of Madrid, eating, drinking and smoking. Yes, believe it or not, that’s Madrid.
One of my favourite pictures reflecting the Spanish society of late 19th is the painting by José Benlliure y Gil, Smalltalk and drink, a close and honest representation of the very reality of a country, its people and their customs. Four old peasants, dressed in the traditional way, chatting quietly around a jug of wine. I see on their faces serenity, experience and sacrifice.
It is also seen in the face of The drinker, by Maximino Peña Muñoz. The old man grabs his jug of wine (we also talked about that, remember?), while reading the newspaper El País.
Let me also tell you about the canvas ‘Till I see you, my Christ!! of Jose Garcia Ramos, also from the late 19th century, early 20th. A beggar bearing an image of baby Jesus quaffs a glass of wine until he sees at the bottom an image of crucified Christ, under the watchful eye of the innkeeper and a customer. To drink until you see Christ. That phrase never made more sense. I love the sign hanging in the window: “Today we do not sell on credit, but tomorrow”.
Already stuck in the 20th century, Inocencio Medina Vera left us a painting, Romería de San Eugenio, which shows the feast that was celebrated on the first or second Sunday of November in the El Pardo hills, near Madrid. I have included this work to show you how the way people consume wine is evolving, this time wine is carried in a glass jar or bottle, what the Italians call frasca. As you can see wine is always naturally present in these events.
Although we could go on for hours wandering through the many rooms of the museum, discovering more details about wine and its history, I will be ending because I know you will be already looking forward leaving the museum to enjoy a delicious glass of wine. That’s why I invite you to see one last painting with me. It is Smoking and drinking monkeys by David Teniers, painted c. 1660. Four monkeys smoke, gathered around a table; one of them raises his glass to toast. Another is asleep and rests his head on a bench. The painter is reminding us that we are nothing but animals, who somehow don’t look too far removed from the grotesque image of apes around a table.
Since starting our tour through the museum, we have seen how wine brings out man’s real nature and depths, their weaknesses and their passions. Wine opens doors, but also exposes our more human and authentic side. Do not miss it. Find it out. Let yourself go.
And now it’s time to go for that well deserved glass of wine. Thanks for joining me. Do not forget your backpack at the locker.
All pictures are copyrighted by MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO.