What are the 20 Works of Art You Want to See before You Die?

The only way for me to answer this would be to chose 20 artistic masterpieces which I have yet to have seen in person (In no particular order):

1. Michelangelo- The Sistine Ceiling:

What can one even begin to say about this masterpiece? Such a collection of some of the most memorable figures and visual narratives. I am always stunned by the scene of God swooping through the heavens:

… and the super-human Jonah who at one bursts forth from his too-restraining architectural setting and falls back stunned by the scenes of creation before him… both those of God… and of Michelangelo himself:

…but especially by the glorious and stunningly beautiful Libyan Sybil whose body appears no natural and elegant (perhaps even moreso considering she was based on a male model)… and yet is posed in what is obviously an impossible pose… yet one that conveys such a sense of motion:

2. Botticelli’s Primavera:

This painting has always struck me like an elegant Renaissance poetic musing… perhaps something akin to Spencer’s Faerie Queene or the Sonnets and Epithalimion… or rather Shakespeare’s Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.

3. Heironymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights:

This painting… and Breughel’s “Blue Cloak (Netherlandish proverbs)” has always struck me as a masterpiece of tiny details in which one could get lost for hours. And my God! the dirty and evil little things that are going on in some of those details!

4. Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride“:

I have long thought of Rembrandt as the Shakespeare of painting… especially in the manner in which he can convey such well-defined character in his portrayals of people. This painting is such an exquisite expression of love… I have had several artist friends who are incurable cynics… who nevertheless admitted to having cried before this painting.

5. Rembrandt’s Hendrijke Wading in a Stream

Again… another exquisite expression of love. Indeed, I find this painting of the artist’s lover/later wife to be fabulously erotic… but in such a delicate, gentle, loving way that never allows for something more lecherous.

6. San Vitale in Ravenna:

My God! What a stunning little building! Looking at the rather plain, blocky and bunker-like exterior who would expect the unearthly interior where glittering mosaics cause everything to disintergrate into a thousand points of light and color (to quote [loosely] Thomas Wolf and NOT George Bush Sr.)

7. Bonnard- Nude in Light (Bottle of Cologne) 1907

This stunning painting by Bonnard which (unlike the others here) I have seen in person twice) has ever struck me as something of an equivalent in paint of the magic of the mosaics in Ravenna. The artist’s young lover/wife is devoured by a light as splendid and spectacular as any imagined by Turner… and yet Bonnard’s achievement may be even more magnificent… or at least improbable… Rather than further dramatizing an already stunning landscape scene, Bonnard metamorphoses the most mundane scene of intimate life into a glorious feast for the eyes equal to any scene of mythological eros.

8. Peter Paul Rubens: The Judgment of Paris:

Rubens was an absolute master (perhaps THE master) of grand narrative painting as well as being as absolute genius of the brush. He exquisitely merged the strong, structural drawing epitomized by Michelangelo with a warmth, sensuality, and painterly bravura born of the Venetians, and the fluid, translucent and glowing colors of the Flemish and created something completely new. I can’t think of an artist who more consistently conveys the joy of eros, and this painting is one of the grandest examples. I cannot but smile further upon recognition of the fact that in this grand erotic mythological narrative Rubens has elected to portray his new young wife as the winner of the very beauty contest that will spur the Trojan War.

9. Peter Paul Rubens: Portrait of Susanna Fourment:

I was tempted equally by Rubens’ wonderful portrait of his first wife, Isabella Brandt, as well as by the marvelous portrait of his second wife dressed (almost) in nothing more than a fur wrap… but I have always had a soft spot for this painting. Sir Joshua Reynolds exclaimed that it was almost inconcievable that she had not fed upon roses (indeed!), and many others have speculated that such a sensuous and loving portrayal of the elder sister
of his future wife, Helena most certainly signified a deeper relationship with the sitter than that of a mere in-law. Whatever the truth, its a gorgeous painting.

By the way, I just noticed that not only are both of these paintings in the National Gallery of London, but so are the Rembrandt painting of Hendrijke and the Rockeby Venus (to say nothing of all those Turners there and in the Tate). As such, I’m starting to think that Britain may just be my number-one tourist destination.

10. Velazquez: Venus and Cupid with Mirror (the “Rockeby Venus”):

This painting is undoubtedly the most fabulous Spanish nude… and one of the greatest ever. Velazquez certainly learned well from Rubens and Titian (the advantages of that great Prado collection). The painting has long been touted as “the greatest ass in art”, and while that alone is certainly worthy of a trip to London, one cannot ignore the marvelously subtle coloring and Velazquez’ insurpassable mastery of paint.

11. Titian: The Rape of Europa

I was torn between the Venus D’Urbino, the glorious Danae and this painting. Titian is an absolute master of oil, weaving together creamy impastos, dry scumbling, and the slightest whispers of transparent glazes into a magical tapestry of paint. The result is an imagery that exudes such warmth and atmosphere that it literally breathes… and that doesn’t even begin to touch upon his color!

12. Saint Lazare, Autun (Giselbertus):

Like the church of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Saint Lazare’s exterior barely hints on what lies within. The work of the great Romanesque sculptor, Giselbertus, is among the greatest treasures of the Romanesque… besides which… I can’t help but appreciate the audacity of this medieval sculptor who first thought to lay claim to his position as the creator, signing his work “I, Giselbertus, made this.” The great portal, a Last Judgment, is certainly one of the masterpieces of medieval art:

Giselbertus figures are simple… unadorned… but lovingly convey the narratives in a direct and clear manner. In many ways he reminds me of the best works of Giotto… some works of folk art… or the great paintings of Max Beckmann. I’m especially enamored of the wonderful portrayal of Eve:

… the touching scene of the Angel gently awakening one of the three Magi to draw his attention to the star of Bethlehem:

… the “Flight to Egypt”:

… and the “Suicide of Judas”:

13. Celtic-The Lindisfarne Gospels:

As a self-avowed medievalist and a lover of the book arts the selections of medieval illuminated manuscripts was quite daunting: the “Book of Kells”, the “Echternact Gospels”, the “Paris Psalter”, the “Book of Durrow”… all these and more were potential selections. I ended selecting the “Lindisfarne Gospels” over the much more famous “Book of Kells” because I wanted a great example of the Celtic book arts… but I personally find “Kells” to be too dark (in spite of my love of the brilliant “Chi Ro” page)… having less “breathing room” than the “Lindisfarne Gospels”:

The book includes a fabulous collection of “carpet pages”:

… marvelous representations of the 4 evangelists:

… and marvelous two page spreads and gloriously decorated title pages:

housed in the British Library, it offers yet one more excuse for a visit to Britain.

14. The Commentaries on the Apocalypse of the Beatus of Liebana

This one is a bit tricky because there are any number of beautifully illuminated versions of this text (how the Spanish loved the themes of death and the Apocalypse). The collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library houses one lovely example:

The work I would most like to see, however, is the Beatus of Saint Severe. This book, like the Pierpont Morgan, shows obvious influences of Islamic/Moorish/North-African art. The famous scene of the birds plucking the eyes from “captains and kings” is a frightening predecessor to Picasso’s Guernica… and probably a direct influence on the work of the Spanish master who was quite cognizant of early Iberian art:

The simple graphic shapes and the bold reds and greens lend this book a look unlike anything else in the world of illuminated manuscripts:

In some ways the book reminds me of nothing so much as the books of William Blake.

15. Persian- The “Shah Nameh” of Tabriz

In one way the “Shah Nameh” is one of the sad stories in art of greed and stupidity. Not too long ago the work was owned by the collector Arthur A. Houghton who undertook the despicable act of spitting the book into separate pages and selling them off bit by bit (such peice-meal sales leading to a greater price than what might be achieved for the work as a whole). This action was condemned by many as equivalent to cutting up the Sistine into parts, but as the work was of an Arabic/Persian source, the outcry was largely limited. After a good many of the choicest pages were purchased by museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Iranians finally offered to purchase… or rather swap for the remains of the text. A DeKooning “Woman” estimated at $20 Million was traded for the “Sha Nameh“. Much as I appreciate DeKooning, I must say that the Iranians got the better
end of the deal by far.

The world of the “Shah Nameh” is marvelous: glittering scenes of Persian Knights in Armor (perhaps echoes from the Arabian Knights?), delicate scenes of amorous dalliances, shimmering patterns, tapestries, carpets, and textiles…

… the book reminds me endlessly of Botticelli’s Primavera, the famous “Unicorn” tapestries, and even the marvelous lithographs of Marc Chagall:

16. French Gothic-Rheims Cathedral:

As the avowed medievalist there is no way I could go without ever seeing one of the great Gothic cathedrals. Notre Dame de Paris has always struck me as too “classically” perfect. Chartres is great… but I have always loved the extreme ornate quality of Rheims where stone has been turned into traceries so linear in style that it has an insubstantiality… as if disintergrating or melting into light and motion:

It should be noted that not only is Rheims a lovely bit of architecture, but it also retains a goodly amount of the original Gothic sculpture (which is not true of many other Gothic cathedrals thanks to the iconoclastic frenzy spurned by the French Revolution):

Most famously there is the lovely Annunciation with the smiling Angel:

Rheims must also be noted for its marvelous soaring interior… :

… and its glorious stained glass:


17. Italy- The Cathedral of Orvieto (Arnolfo di Cambio-architect, Lorenzo

Maitani-sculptor, Luca Signorelli-painter, etc…)

While there are surely churches and cathedrals that far surpass the Cathedral of Orvieto in terms of fame (Notre Dame de Paris, Chartres, the “Duomo” of Florence, St. Mark’s, etc…) none exceeds Orvieto in terms of sheer beauty. The facade of Orvieto looks more like a giant icon or reliquary painting than a work of architecture. I find it absolutely stunning to discover such brilliant paintings and mosaic on the exterior of the building (and wonder, sadly, how long such would last in America before being defaced by graffiti):

The design of the stone traceries of Orvieto must surely be one of the most ornately gorgeous of all the old cathedrals:

While even the simple patterned stone design of the sides is quite beautiful:

Astoundingly… at this point our exploration of the exterior “decoration” has only begun. The great sculptor, Lorenzo Maitani provided the cathedral with some gorgeous bronze figures:

… Even more stunning are his carved walls of Biblical narratives…:

…culminating in his frightening visions of the hellish tortures of the Last Judgment:

The interior of Orvieto is no less stunning…

…whether we speak merely of the minor decorative details…

… the rafters…

… the marvelous 14th century frescoes framing the altar…

… or the great frescos by Luca Signorelli…

18. Italy- St. Peter’s (Bramante, Michelangelo, Bernini, etc…):

In spite of the fact that I am in no way Catholic, I cannot ignore amount of history and grandeur associated with this building. I don’t think anyone standing beneath this dome could fail to be awed by the overwhelming scale and beauty:

Michelangelo’s dome was of course so brilliant that it would become the source of inspiration for St. Paul’s in London… and the Capital in Washington D.C….

If the awe-inspiring architecture, the surrounding grounds, and the insurpassable history were not enough…

… there is also the presence of such brilliant sculptural works as Bernini’s
“baldachino” and Raphael’s frescoes in the ceiling medallions:

… and Michelangelo’s Pieta

While I undoubtedly would treasure the chance to explore any number of ancient (and not-so-ancient) non-Western architectural sites… Angkhor Wat, certain Indian ruins, the step pyramids of Mexico and Central America, the forbidden city, and especially the buried army of terracotta figures in Xi’an, China… I must go with my own culture… the culture that has exerted the greatest impact upon my own art… when choosing the remaining two masterpieces. Even then… wanting to explore something of the ancient world leaves one with quite a selection from which to choose: the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the Temple of Zeus from Pergamon, the Ishtar gate. In the end, I went with Egypt in both instances:

19. Egypt- The Pyramids of Giza

Even if I were to ignore the great and enigmatic Sphynx not far away…

I could not help but be stunned by these monumental masterpieces. They are perhaps unique in being at once archetypes… and the form taken to the height of perfection. It is as if Shakespeare, Dante, or Petrarch has at once invented the sonnet AND taken it to such heights of perfection… as if Bach had invented the fugue AND taken it further than anyone else might ever attempt. Yes… there were step pyramids prior to these true pyramids of Giza… but one is stunned at the way in which the true pyramid (an architectural archetype as basic (perhaps) as the post and lintel, the arch, and the dome) was at once born and taken to such heights of brilliance. Perhaps only the dome of the Pantheon comes near to such a perfection of innovation.

20. Egypt- The Temple Complex of Karnak:

If the Pyramids of Giza simply overwhelm with their monumentality and their perfection of a most simple archetype… the Complex at Karnak overwhelms with its excess of splendors…

The sheer wealth of these centuries-old ruins… temples, obelisks, paintings, wall reliefs, giant bulging columns, monumental sculpted figures… is stunning today. One can only imagine how overwhelming it all must have been at the time of its creation



  1. Eric said,

    June 26, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Why aren’t you updating your blog anymore?

  2. stlukesguild said,

    July 7, 2008 at 5:06 am

    Eric… I’ve actually been quite tied up making my own art for once. I also was a bit pissed off at having postings mutilated when some Puritans complained about various “disturbing” nudes by Degas, etc… that I had hosted on Photbucket and I’m looking for a better photo hosting site where I can post image from.

  3. Eric said,

    September 2, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Heh. Damn Puritans!

  4. September 29, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    I have to say that this is stunning! I followed your link from Wet Canvas in the Art History forums where you had made some intriguing posts. Just had to leave a note!

    I have been fascinated with miniature painting, such as the Lindsfarne Gospels and Book of Kells (not to mention others from different cultures as well as miniature painting progressed). I was delighted to see them listed here – but also loved seeing your other choices. Thanks so much for posting!


  5. Sky Blue Pink said,

    January 1, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I have come across your site and list via wetpaint.com – I was impressed by the depth and insight of your comments about finding ones own style. Looking at your list has made me realise it is far too long since I have visited the National and it is only down the road from us. If you would like to see them in person I can offer some friendly accommodation a cheap coach ride away from London. It seems a shame not to be able to visit at least some of your passions in person and if this wouls help I would be glad!

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