The 10 Greatest Works of Art Ever

From mysterious 30,000-year-old cave paintings to a 'cathedral of the mind' by Jackson Pollock, art critic Jonathan Jones names his favourite artworks of all time – and where in the world you can see them. What would make your top 10?

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Leonardo da Vinci – The Foetus in the Womb (c 1510-13)

Leonardo expresses the human condition in a nutshell – indeed, his rendition of the womb resembles an opened horsechestnut casing. Inside is the beginning of us all laid bare. Five hundred years ago, this artist and scientist could portray the human mystery with a wonder that is not religious but biological he holds up humanity as a fact of nature. It is for me the most beautiful work of art in the world.• Royal Collection, Windsor Castle

Caravaggio – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608)

Caravaggio shows a murderous moment in a prison yard. The executioner has drawn a knife to sever the last tendons and skin of John the Baptist’s neck. Someone watches this horrific moment from a barred window. All around is sepulchral gloom. Death and human cruelty are laid bare by this masterpiece, as its scale and shadow daunt and possess the mind.• St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta

Rembrandt – Self-Portrait with Two Circles (c 1665-9)

You are not looking at Rembrandt. He is looking at you. The authority of genius and age gaze out of this autumnal masterpiece with a moral scrutiny that is terrifying. Rembrandt seems to see into the beholder’s soul and perceive every failing. He is like God. He is the most serious artist of all, because he makes everyone who stands before him a supplicant in the court of truth.• Kenwood House, London

Chauvet cave paintings (c 30, 000 years ago)

Who painted these exquisitely lifelike portraits of animals? There was no such thing as writing in the ice age so nothing is known of the names, if they had names, of these early people. Cave artists may have been women; they may have been children. What is known is that Homo sapiens, our species of human, makes its mark with these paintings that are as beautiful and intelligent as anything created since.• Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, Ardèche, France

Jackson Pollock – One: Number 31, 1950 (1950)

The art of Jackson Pollock is a modern mystery. How, from flinging paint on a canvas laid on the ground, did he create such beauty and inner structure? Like a solo by Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, his freeform improvisations loop and lurch and yet achieve a profound unity. Pollock only held this together for a short period of brilliance. This painting is a cathedral of the mind.• MoMA, New York

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