How Many of the World's Art Masterpieces Have You Seen?

The Gold Mask of Tutankhamun, on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

20 of the World's Masterpieces to See in 2016

How many of the world's art masterpieces can you say that you've seen in person? As we turn to 2016, we resolve to do more traveling, with an eye to experiencing the most spectacular, awe-inspiring artworks on the planet. Here we've compiled our top twenty destinations to visit to experience humanity's creative genius from ancient times to modern history.


Burial Mask of Tutankhamun, 1323 BCE
Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt

One of the quintessential works of ancient Egyptian art, King Tutankhamun's burial mask was constructed from 11 kilograms of gold, with inlays of gemstones. Along with the Pyramids and the Great Sphinx in Giza, and the other marvels of Egyptian antiquity at the Egyptian Museum, this spectacular artifact is a must-see.


Nazca Lines, Peru. Photo: Dom Crossley.

Nazca Lines, 500 BCE - 500 CE
Nazca Desert, Peru

Only truly viewable from above, the Nazca geoglyphs are believed to be ancient messages intended for the gods in the sky, and perhaps as sacred trails to be walked. The Nazca made hundreds of figures, with the largest measuring over 660 feet across.


Elgin Marbles at the British Museum. Photo: Andrew Dunn.

Elgin Marbles, 447-438 BCE
British Museum, London, UK
Acropolis, Athens, Greece

The only way to truly appreciate the stolen beauty of the Parthenon Marbles is to see them both in the British Museum, and to see the site from where they were taken, the Acropolis in Athens. The dispute about where they belong is ongoing.


Terracotta Army, Xi'an, China. Photo: Walter Wilhelm.

Terracotta Army, 246-209 BCE
Xi'an, China

Over 8,000 life-size terracotta military figures were buried with Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. The sheer greatness of the endeavor is all but unfathomable, and the impression it leaves is formidable, to say the least.


Sleeping Buddha, Ajanta Caves. Photo: Kirk Kittell.

Ajanta Caves, 200 BCE - 480 CE
Maharashtra, India

Abandoned for more than a thousand years, some of the oldest and finest of all Buddhist art can be found in the Ajanta Caves, near Mumbai, within 28 caves containing stone-carved statues and mural paintings.


Bonampak Mural, room 3, depicting ritual celebration for victory in battle. Photo: Mando Barista.

Bonampak Murals, 580-800 CE
Chiapas, Mexico

While there are more architecturally impressive Mayan ruins, Bonampak offers the most impressive and intriguing murals. Within its three rooms, bloody depictions of war and ritual cover the walls from floor to ceiling.


Zhang Zeduan, Along the River During the Qingming Festival (detail), ca. 1080-1120.

Zhang Zeduan, Along the River During the Qingming Festival, ca. 1080-1120
Palace Museum, Beijing, China

The Palace Museum, located in Beijing's Forbidden City, holds the great masterpieces of Chinese painting, including the original 12th century five-meter-long epic painting by Zhang Zeduan--a work of such great renown and the subject of so many remakes, it is known as "China's Mona Lisa."


Christ Pantocrator, Monreale, Palermo. Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad / Wonders of Sicily.

Christ Pantocrator, ca. 1170-1189
Monreale Cathedral, Sicily, Italy

This Byzantine-style Christ Pantocrator is, by many accounts, the most magnificent and terrifying of its kind. Gazing up from below, the figure looms 20 meters above the viewer, the curve of the nave exaggerating Christ's outstretched arms in an omnipotent embrace.


Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1482-85.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1482-85
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

If you can only visit one repository of Renaissance art, the Uffizi Gallery should top your list. Along with Botticelli's exquisite Birth of Venus, it holds Caravaggio's Bacchus, Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, the Venus of Urbino by Titian, and many other masterpieces.


Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

The Prado contains many masterworks by Goya, Velazquez, and others, but perhaps the most intriguing is Hieronymus Bosch's greatest masterpiece. Bosch's proto-Surrealist triptych constitutes one of the greatest testaments to the human imagination, a painting that has inspired scores of artists since.


Leonardo Da Vinci, The Last Supper, 1494-98.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Last Supper, 1494-98
Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Leonardo's ultra-famous fresco is located in a quiet rectory in a small convent in Milan. Its humble surroundings notwithstanding, being in the presence of this in situ masterpiece is awe-inspiring.


Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Photo: Mazda Hewitt.

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512
Vatican City, Italy

You're already very familiar with certain details of the Sistine Chapel, but nothing can prepare you for the experience of gazing up at the entire thing. It is positively crowded with masterful figures, and is especially impressive since its restoration. Not to mention that the chapel also holds masterpieces by Botticelli, Perugino, and other Renaissance greats.


The interior side of the dome of the Sheikh Lotf-Allah mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo: Phillip Maiwald.

Sheikh Lotf-Allah Mosque, 1603-19
Isfahan, Iran

In a city brimming with jewel-like mosques, this 17th century mosque is truly one of the masterpieces of Persian architecture. While structurally simple, it boasts some of the most impressive, intricate interior and exterior ornamental decoration in the Islamic world. The celestial gold symmetry of the dome inspired many other works of Islamic art, including the famous Ardabil Carpet in the collection of the V&A in London.


Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl, 1823. Courtesy of the Tate Britain.

J.M.W. Turner Collection, 1792-1845
Tate Britain, London, UK

The world's largest collection of Turner's work is held at the Tate Britain, comprising over 300 paintings featuring the master's signature atmospherics and sweeping landscapes, which would inspire countless artists after him.


Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19.

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19
Louvre Museum, Paris, France

The Louvre holds some of the world's most iconic masterpieces: the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo. But perhaps none of these are as physically astounding as Géricault's masterwork of Romanticism. 


Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, France. Photo: David Alexander Elder.

Monet's Garden, 1883-1926
Giverny, France

Claude Monet lived for 43 years at Giverny, and considered his flower garden and water garden as works of art in their own right. Visiting Monet's home is a must for any lover of Impressionism, where you can take in not only Monet's great works of art, but also masterworks of Japanese art, including Katsushika Hokusai's famous print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.


Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893
National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

An icon of modern art and one of the first examples of Expressionism, Munch's oft-stolen painting The Scream counts as one of the most influential masterpieces in history. More Munch can be had in Oslo at the dedicated Munch Museum, which also holds a later version of the painting.


Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937. Courtesy Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain

Picasso painted his epic protest painting Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, and refused to show the painting in Spain until democracy was once again established in the country. It arrived in Spain in 1981, after Franco's death, and by then had become one of the most iconic anti-war works of art in history.


Interior of the Rothko Chapel. Courtesy of the Rothko Chapel. Photo: Hickey-Robertson.

Rothko Chapel, 1964-1971
Houston, Texas, USA

Mark Rothko wished for his paintings to elicit a deeply emotional response--a "religious experience"--within the viewer. To that end, the Rothko Chapel, a site-specific, meditative space lined with paintings of a deep black-mauve color, is the ideal place to experience this modern master's work.


Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Photo: Denny Mont.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
Rozel Point, Utah, USA

Half of the experience of visiting Robert Smithson's iconic land art piece Spiral Jetty is in the journey it takes to get there. Protruding from a desolate side of Utah's Great Salt Lake, the spiral evokes the primordial within an alien landscape of pink water, white salt crystals, and the rusted out remnants of nearby defunct mining operations. A pilgrimage every contemporary art lover should make.


--Natalie Hegert