A day at the museum

"Look! Here we have a very tiny sheep sitting on my book."

"Look! Here we have a very tiny sheep sitting on my book."

I'm ashamed to admit I didn’t go to the famous Prado art museum in Madrid. The queues were long, and the days were hot and... no excuse really. But round the corner is the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, which has a measly 1600 artworks in its collection, and was started as the private collection of the wealthy and wonderfully named Heinrich Freiherr Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon et Impérfalva (try getting that on your arrivals card).

The paintings were originally housed at the family estate in Lugano, Italy, but in 1988 the city council there refused the family planning permission for an extension. So Heinrich’s son moved the whole lot to Madrid, whose city government cheerfully provided a gallery.

More fool Lugano - it missed out on a collection which offers highlights of European painters and painting styles spanning 700 or so years. You move chronologically, starting with the 13th-15th century - mostly Italian, mostly religious - and ending with works from the 20th century.

Here are some things that caught my eye:

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Baby man Jesus: The oldest painting in the museum is a Virgin and child dating from around 1270 and attributed to an artist rather oddly called the Master of the Magdalen. But it was his depiction of the Christ child as a rather ugly, balding, middle aged man that caught my eye. Bizarre.

The museum notes don’t shed any light, but looking it up afterwards, I discovered it wasn't that painters in the Middle Ages were just hopeless at drawing babies, they meant to make Jesus look like that. Art historian Matthew Averett says medieval artists subscribed to the concept of "homunculus" (little man) - the belief that Jesus was born "perfectly formed and unchanged”. It was only during the Renaissance that artists moved to draw the chubby-cheeked cherubic faces that are more recognisable as babies.

Below, another strange man-Jesus from the Thyssen... And one more baby-like, but where I just couldn't work out where that breast is coming from...

"You just watch your step old man."

"You just watch your step old man."

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Perspective: another wonderfully noticeable thing in the medieval pictures was the random sizes of people and objects. Check this picture of John the Baptist, who is proud to point out the tiny sheep lying on his book.

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Check out also the tiny man standing on the ground between the two St Johns. Apparently this is the donor - the guy who commissioned Spanish artist Joan (the Catalan version of John, not a woman artist, perish the thought) Mates to paint the work in 1410. In this case, his miniature size indicates his relative lack of importance (as an earthly mortal) in relation to the godly stature of the two saints. Still, he couldn’t resist being in the picture.

Bored angel: I loved this picture, of St Matthew writing his Gospel - exceedingly slowly, if the expression of the angel is anything to go by. “OMG, he’s sharpening his quill again! Just get on with it, dude. I’ve got to get it to the printer by close of play today.”

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My favourite: This painting (below) - Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio - is, according to the museum spiel, “a fine example of fifteenth-century Florentine portraiture... [where] body proportions were idealised while faces left devoid of expression were expected to convey character.” Not only is she totally beautiful, but apparently it’s a posthumous portrait. Tornabuoni died in childbirth in 1488, aged 20, but the painting was done two years later. Maybe there’s a logical explanation (like she’d been painted before); otherwise, in a pre-photograph world, how did the artist know what she’d looked like?

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Favourite Trompe-l'œil: This is a painting, not two statues. Even looking at the real thing it was hard to believe. So clever!

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By the time I got to the final rooms I was befuddled. I swanned past Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky , barely looking. Save them for another day.

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But I did like this Armchair no 2 (Domenico Gnoli, 1967) - perhaps because that’s where I quite fancied being by then. Though in the end, meeting up with Geoff and Sam in a pavement cafe for a glass of wine and some tapas served quite as well.