The Museo del Prado is a Spanish institution with a long history of championing the great and the good of the art world. Picasso himself acted as the museum’s Honorary Director-in-Exile from Paris during the Spanish Civil war, and it currently houses one of the world’s most admired collections, showcasing masterpieces by Goya, Velázquez and Rembrandt among many others.
Today, however, the museum seeks to match its old masters with novel ways to get the most out of them, and new iOS app Second Canvas Museo del Prado allows users to explore 14 of the gallery’s most famous masterpieces in a level of detail previously only experienced by curators and restorers.
The result is unexpectedly intimate; the X-ray function exposes the layers of paint and the construction of the panels and canvases, while infrared vision details the artists’ sketches beneath, which can differ considerable from the finished result.
The X-ray feature allows you to view the composition and layers of paint used in creation of the paintings
The museum created giga-pixel images of the paintings back in 2009, including Las Meninas by Velázquez, Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights and Self-Portrait by Dürer, meshing together thousands of high-resolution images to create one giant image of 1,000,000,000 or more pixels.
This means the user can zoom in on details practically invisible to the naked eye, or at least to the inquisitive gallery visitor behind the velvet rope – zooming into the face of Saint John the Evangelist from Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross revealed tears rolling down his cheeks I’d failed to notice before. Meanwhile, activating the infrared function highlighted an ominous sketched trickle of blood across his throat van der Weyden thought better of painting in. X-ray vision also reveals that Velázquez originally painted María Agustina de Sarmiento, handmaiden of the Infanta Margarita in Las Meninas, with a much larger, less refined nose than the one she’s currently sporting.
It’s a surreal experience, standing in front of some of the world’s most famous paintings with an iPad in hand. Yet the ability to peer at every brushstroke and examine the sheer detail of beautifully captured drapery, skin and fauna really does invite a deeper appreciation – it’s easy to lose 10 minutes zooming in and out and reading the explanations of the key symbolic details of each painting.
Should a particular detail catch your eye, the app allows you to crop it and share it directly via social media, or even discuss your selection with fellow art lovers through an integrated Twitter feed.
The app so far has been an enormous success, becoming the most downloaded app across Spain during March, and the number one educational app in Columbia, Argentina and Peru among others. But isn’t there the fear users will feel they don’t need to visit the gallery now they have the collection’s star attractions at their literal fingertips?
Gabriele Finaldi, deputy director of the museum, says it provides a new level of understanding of the artworks, rather than claiming to act as a replacement to gazing up at the real thing.
“Some people will never visit the Prado Museum, it might not be possible,” he says. “But this is a very special way for them to know what our gallery offers, and we feel the new technology can contribute very significantly to that.
“Visitors to the gallery can spend a minute, even just half a minute, looking at a picture. With the app you can explore every centimetre of the work of art in your own time on your iPad, leading to a deeper understanding of how it was created and every detail the artist included.”
Madpixel, the developers behind the app, hope to work with further galleries and museums globally, and are already in talks with some of the world’s most significant art organisations.
Creator Iñaki Arredondo says the company wants to change the way people experience art, within the home, at the museum and in the classroom. That future may be sooner than you think.
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