Astonishing works by the 15th-century Spanish painter Bartolomé Bermejo are on view at London’s National Gallery.
Bartolomé Bermejo was arguably the greatest Spanish painter of the 15th century, and yet it took until 1926 for the first monograph on him to be written. And even then, the author, Elías Tormo, had to admit, “We do not know when he was born, educated or died. We do not know whether he managed, if indeed he did, to leave Spain. We do not know with what masters he trained. We do not know of any prince, prelate or magnate who protected him; we do not know if he had any patrons. We know hardly anything; we know nothing.” Today, while Bermejo remains, perhaps inevitably in the case of anyone who died over half a thousand years ago, a shadowy figure, much more is known. We know who at least one of his most important patrons was, something of his family background, and how he fit within the artistic trends of his time. And starting this month, visitors to the National Gallery in London will have the rare opportunity to experience his work directly in the exhibition “Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance” (June 12–September 29).
The National Gallery happens to own one of Bermejo’s greatest works, St. Michael Triumphant Over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan (1468), and it provides the occasion and the anchor for this exhibition, which follows on the heels of a somewhat larger exhibition at the Prado in Madrid that was on view in the fall of 2018 and winter of 2019. The St. Michael, an oil and gold on wood painting signed by the artist and depicting the angel preparing to drive his sword into a grotesque devil figure while the patron, a Valencian nobleman, kneels off to one side, is no mere pretext to do a show. It is an eye-popping, absolutely singular work that NG director Gabriele Finaldi says “is without a doubt one of the supreme works of art produced in Spain—and indeed in all of Europe—in the fifteenth century.” High praise indeed, but no hyperbole, as the viewer will doubtless agree after seeing it—not just for the first time but after looking again and again, because there is something to please, amaze, and challenge the eye everywhere on the surface of this panel.
The National Gallery purchased St. Michael Triumphant in 1995 from the estate of the South African diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher, who had acquired it around 1900 from the church where it had resided since its creation (originally as the center panel of a triptych altarpiece). The museum characterizes this as “among the most notable acquisitions made by the National Gallery in recent memory.”
The painting is an illustration of a passage in the Book of Revelation of the New Testament, (12:7–9): “And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” In Bermejo’s vision of the event, the archangel Michael is an elegant, confident figure, decked out in purple-red silk and golden armor, about to strike the decisive blow that will conclude the “war in heaven.” The devil, on the other hand, is not very intimidating. Bermejo is known for his touches of humor, and here he depicts Satan as a cartoonish dragon with a big toothy grin, almost Muppet-like in its cuteness. The patron, on the other hand, is a somber figure kneeling piously while witnessing the divine drama unfolding.
We know who this patron was, because full documentation of the painting’s commission exists—and is on view in the exhibition. Antoni Joan was a powerful nobleman and merchant from the town of Tous in eastern Spain near Valencia, then under the crown of Aragon. He was a warrior knight himself, from a family of knights (his brother-in-law was one of the inspirations for Tirant lo Blanc, the hero of a 15th-century Catalan romance that is given high praise in Don Quixote), and the armor that St. Michael wears is modeled closely on real, contemporary battlefield armor that someone such as Joan would have worn—although minus the gold and jewels.
One of Bermejo’s most salient traits as a painter was his intricate, illusionistic depiction of detail, and in St. Michael it comes through most obviously in the way the garments are rendered—in the folds and textures of the patron’s gray jacquard robe and the angel’s cape (whose purplish color was a trademark of the artist), in the green velvet over the breastplate and scabbard, and above all in the chased surfaces of the armor itself. If you look closely at the lower part of the breastplate, you will see that it contains a reflection of a city skyline—that of the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. This amazing little detail affiliates Bermejo with the Flemish school of Northern Renaissance painting, whose major innovator, Jan van Eyck, reveled in reflections like this (for example, in the Arnolfini Wedding).
Bermejo’s Flemish-influenced style made him unique among Spanish painters of his era. Not that Northern influence was unheard of in Spain; far from it. But rather than giving general aesthetic nods to Flemish art, Bermejo completely internalized its extremely difficult technique of oil painting using glazes, in which layers of pigments thinned by linseed oil were applied one over the other to create a luminous, “transparent” effect. This was modern magic that no one else in Spain could supply, and it won Bermejo many commissions. It also earned him his place in art history.
Bermejo probably never traveled to the north but learned Netherlandish technique in Valencia, by studying works by such artists as Rogier van der Weyden. His name, Bermejo, means “reddish,” which could be a reference to his hair color. He also went by the name Cárdenas, which means purplish; that could be a reference to his favorite color, which recurs in his works. Current scholarship has it that he was likely either Jewish or from a Catholic family that had converted from Judaism; certainly his wife was Jewish. After the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, life would have been difficult for him, and he had to move around a lot. Nonetheless, he continued to have a very successful career up until his death around 1501.
In addition to the St. Michael, the NG show features several major works by Bermejo loaned from Spanish museums—four panels depicting the life of Christ and two complete altarpieces, the Desplà Pietà and the Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat—for a total of seven works. All display Bermejo’s virtuoso skills, unique aesthetic, and sheer sense of vitality, in full. Considering the rarity of the artist’s work and the fact that all these paintings will not be gathered together again for a long time, the exhibition is not to be missed.
Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance, by Letizia Treves, is published by and copyright of National Gallery Company Limited 2019.
By John Dorfman