Painted Heresies

The Master of the Prado: A Novel, by Javier Sierra, (Atria Books), 320 pages, release date 17 November, 2015

Javier Sierra’s The Master of the Prado fits into the relatively new genre of literary-detective-meets-heretical-information; think Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco or The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. It is, however, its own creature, and has a sort of gentleness that balances the anxiety and frenzy one usually finds in this genre.

While The Master of the Prado is a novel, Sierra makes himself the book’s central character, presenting it as an account based on one of his own rediscovered notebooks. While taking a break from his studies, the youthful Sierra spends time in the Prado, where he meets Luis Fovel, a man of about seventy, with an extensive knowledge of art history and the ways in which art has been used to encode religious principles that were considered heretical at the time the art was created.

Fovel’s tales trace a path of intertwined, encoded messages through several centuries of art: including works by El Greco, Titian, Bosch, Botticelli, Breughel, and Raphael. Sierra is Fovel’s eager student, soaking up this information and coming to view these artworks through a spiritual perspective.

Sierra begins further investigations on his own, then finds himself being trailed by Julian de Prada, who claims to be an “inspector,” through he never clarifies what it is he inspects or whom he works for. De Prada is obsessed with Fovel, warning Sierra of the dangers of Fovel’s non-rationalist views.

As this brief summary indicates, The Master of the Prado is a less convoluted work than many in the genre, which strengthens it. The questions Sierra finds himself asking are interesting enough on their own. They don’t need to be supported by an excess of conspiracy theories or obscurities. Readers can set their own pace as they follow Sierra’s metaphysical quest, rather than having to juggle multiple, conflicting plot lines.

The other real pleasure of The Master of the Prado is its illustrations—high-quality reproductions of the many artworks discussed by Favel and Sierra. Being able to view these artworks as the central characters discuss them also allows readers to feel as if they’re accompanying Sierra, rather than watching him from a distance.

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