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A Brief History of The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya

Updated: Jan 19

What is Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya?


Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, abbreviated as MNAC, is an inspirational collection of Spanish and Catalan works set in the Palau Nacional, a majestic neo-Baroque palace completed for the 1929 International Exhibition.


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Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya in the evening


Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya History


In 1929, Barcelona hosted an International Exhibition that transformed the city’s urban landscape. The World’s Fair was conceived as a way of showcasing the technological advances of the city. 20 European nations participated, along with some private organizations from the USA and Japan. Many of these nations constructed pavilions in their own distinctive styles, whilst the city of Barcelona erected many of its most iconic landmarks that can still be seen today. Perched here on the slopes of Montjuïc Hill, above a cascading water feature and sculpted Italianate gardens, is one such structure, a soaring neo-Baroque palace initially proposed by Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch and subsequently designed by Enric Catà i Catà and Pedro Cendoya Oscoz.


Five years after Barcelona’s International Exhibition, the palace became home to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, a spectacular collection replete with treasures spanning over a thousand years of art, with a focus on Spanish and Catalan works. Naturally, it remains one of the city’s prime symbols of Catalan identity. Its permanent collection is divided chronologically, from Romanesque and Gothic, to Renaissance and Baroque, and finally, to Modernism.


Prominent among the museum’s highlights stands its remarkable collection of Romanesque art and sculpture, the most noteworthy of its kind in the world. The existence of this collection is thanks to the huge effort made in the early 20th century to rescue the art from neglected parish churches crumbling into ruin across rural northern Catalonia. Highly skilled conservation teams were recruited to detach fragmented frescoes from the church walls, and move them into the specially customised areas you’ll find in the museum. Most of the pieces now housed here date from the 11th to the 13th centuries, and stunningly demonstrate the prowess of artists during Catalonia’s early history.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya ceiling

But don’t let all this overshadow the museum’s Gothic collection, which repays a visit: treat yourself to the dazzling work of 15th-century Catalan painter Jaume Huguet. His Consagració de Sant Agustí is now considered one of his greatest works, and it’s easy to see why: its luscious detail astounds.


The Renaissance and Baroque collection encompasses around 300 Spanish and international pieces dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. It includes impressive work from Spanish Old Masters El Greco, Velázquez and Zurbarán, as well as Italian and northern masterworks from Titian, Tiepolo, Carracci, Rubens and Cranach.


By contrast, the Modern art collection is arranged thematically. It ranges from Neoclassicism to the Avant-Garde art of the 1950s. It focuses on lesser-known and specifically Catalan Modern styles such as Modernisme and Noucentisme, a movement that largely originated as an ideological and artistic reaction to the former! Look out for the work of Marià Pidelaserra, one of Catalonia’s few Impressionist painters. And discover the exemplary furniture design of Barcelona’s most loved Modernista, Antoni Gaudí. The museum also includes a coin and photography collection, the latter encompassing over 40,000 photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries.


Before you leave, make sure to visit Òleum, the museum’s restaurant. It’s situated in the old Throne Room of the palace, the exact spot from which King Alfonso XIII inaugurated the International Exhibition of 1929.


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