From across the city, the bombastic neobaroque silhouette of the Palau Nacional can be seen on the slopes of Montjuïc. Built for the 1929 World Exhibition and restored in 2005, it houses a vast collection of mostly Catalan art spanning the early Middle Ages to the early 20th century. The high point is the collection of extraordinary Romanesque frescoes.
This building has come to be one of the city’s prime symbols of the region’s separate, Catalan identity, but the fact that it was constructed under the centralist dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, lends a whiff of irony.
The real highlight here is the Romanesque art section, considered the most important concentration of early medieval art in the world. Rescued from neglected country churches across northern Catalonia in the early 20th century, the collection consists of 21 frescoes, woodcarvings and painted altar frontals (low-relief wooden panels that were the forerunners of the elaborate altarpieces that adorned later churches). The insides of several churches have been recreated and the frescoes – in some cases fragmentary, in others extraordinarily complete and alive with colour – have been placed as they were when in situ.
The two most striking fresco sets follow one after the other. The first, in Sala 5, is a magnificent image of Christ in Majesty done around 1123. Based on the text of the Apocalypse, we see Christ enthroned on a rainbow with the world at his feet. He holds a book open with the words Ego Sum Lux Mundi (I am the Light of the World) and is surrounded by the four Evangelists. The images were taken from the apse of the Església de Sant Climent de Taüll in northwest Catalonia. Nearby in Sala 9 are frescoes done around the same time in the nearby Església de Santa Maria de Taüll. This time the central image taken from the apse is of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. These images were not mere decoration but tools of instruction in the basics of Christian faith for the local population – try to set yourself in the mind of the average medieval citizen: illiterate, ignorant, fearful and in most cases eking out a subsistence living. These images transmitted the basic personalities and tenets of the faith and were accepted at face value by most.
Even the rudimentary 'scratchings', done most probably by the priests, of animals, crosses and other symbols, have been rescued and preserved here.
Opposite the Romanesque collection on the ground floor is the museum’s Gothic art section. In these halls you can see Catalan Gothic painting and works from other Spanish and Mediterranean regions. Look out especially for the work of Bernat Martorell in Sala 32 and Jaume Huguet in Sala 34. Among Martorell’s works figure images of the martyrdom of St Vincent and St Llúcia. Huguet’s Consagració de Sant Agustí, in which St Augustine is depicted as a bishop, is dazzling in its detail.
As the Gothic collection draws to a close, you pass through two separate and equally eclectic private collections. The Cambò Bequest, by Francesc Cambó (1876–1947) spans the history of European painting between the 14th century and the beginning of the 19th century, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection presents a selection of painting and sculpture of European art produced between the 13th and the 18th centuries on loan to the MNAC by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The MNAC added an extra floor to absorb these two collections. Much of the work from the Cambò Bequest was kept in a Pedralbes convent before being transferred here, along with the mainly Modernista holdings from the former Museum of Modern Art. The Thyssen-Bornemisza collection's highlight is Fra Angelico's (1395–1455) Madonna of Humility, whereas the Cambò Bequest holds wonderful works by the Venetian Renaissance masters Veronese (1528–88), Titian (1490–1557) and Canaletto (1697–1768), along with those of Rubens (1577–1640) and even England’s Gainsborough (1727–88), its grand finale being examples of work by Francisco de Goya (1746–28).
From here you pass into the great domed central hall. This area is sometimes used for concerts. Up on the next floor, the collection turns to modern art, mainly but not exclusively Catalan. This collection is arranged thematically: Modernisme, Noucentisme, Art and the Civil War and so on. Among the many highlights: an early Salvador Dalí painting (Portrait of My Father), Juan Gris' collage-like paintings, the brilliant portraits of Marià Fortuny, and 1930s call-to-arms posters against the Francoist onslaught (nearby you'll find photos of soldiers and bombed-out city centres). There are also many works by Modernista painters Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol, as well as Catalan luminary Antoni Tàpies.
Also on show are items of Modernista furniture and decoration, which include a mural by Ramon Casas (the artist and Pere Romeu on a tandem bicycle) that once adorned the legendary bar and restaurant Els Quatre Gats.
After all this, you can relax in the museum restaurant, which offers great views north towards Plaça d’Espanya. Students can use the Biblioteca del MNAC, the city’s main art reference library.