As Sorolla comes to an end at the National Gallery, Room 1 continues the Spanish theme with its free exhibition’ Bartolome Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance. Such few works by this early renaissance master exist, to the extent that when the National Gallery acquired Saint Michael triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan in 1995 it wouldn’t have been thinkable to do such an exhibition. In fact it was only the second time the piece had ever changed hands. This exhibition houses only seven works, but they represent a third of his works, and have never been seen before in the UK.
The St Michael panel was restored on 2018 and gave rise to idea of this exhibition still so little of Bermejo was known. We don’t know where and when he was born or where he died, what little that is know is all based on his paintings and the contents of ledgers in places he received commissions. The chronology that takes up the left wall of the room contains all that’s known about him. What is known is that he was an itinerant artist and had to partner with lesser local painters to receive commissions given guild rules requiring commissions to go to artists being based in commissioning towns. His work was carried out against the back drop of converso and the inquisition, which touched him directly, we know for sure that his wife was a Jewish convert to Christianity, and it’s quite possible he was too. via his wife, and the reconquest of Spain, for which St. Michael is key icon of that.
His mastery of oil was head an shoulders above others in Spain at the time and is clear in the St Michael. So much so that it had been thought he trained in the Netherlands. But this is highly unlikely given his itinerant nature and lack of a permanent or royal patron to fund such an expensive endeavour. Far more likely is that he saw and studied Dutch paintings in Spain. The Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat is the only other signed work by him (other than St Michael) and unique in its iconography. Montserrat is often represented by a saw being used by children, here it forms a throne for the Virgin Mary to sit on. Among the iconography of the ships representing the merchant status of the commissioner, we also find the names saint of commissioner (St Francis) and his brother Juliano, who when the commissioner died took the painting back to his home town where it’s been ever since.
Bermejo’s works all bare certain iconography similarities; commissioners in them praying, the flowers, the way he represents demons and constructs armour. Every featured page of text or the psalm and songs sung by the angels can easily be read. The similarity of the plants (and lack of under dreading shown in infrared studies) suggests he carried studies of the plants with him, and possibly by him, ready for use in his commissions. Bermejo’s clients were the core of Spanish society, knights, the church and the merchant classes, all with money to spend and a desire to impress, he was the go to artist for this. The armour of St Michael is so real to life that he must have had a suit to work from that he’s then embellished to a level above any that even a monarch would have, it’s a heavenly set of armour, just as the rock crystal shield is.
There is still so much to learn and discover about the Spanish master, known to so few of us, but this exhibition and it’s great achievement of bringing these works together is a step towards this. Not only this it’s a chance to get up close and personal with some remarkable works.
Bartolome Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance
National Gallery, Room 1
12 June 2019 – 29 September 2019
Feature Image – Bartolomé Bermejo (about 1440–about 1501) Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat, probably 1470–5 Oil on oak panel, 156.5 x 100.5 cm (central panel); 156.5 x 50.2 cm (side panels) Cathedral of Nostra Signora Assunta, Chapter House/ Acqui Terme (Alessandria) / Italy © Diocesi di Acqui-Cattedrale N. Signora Assunta, Acqui Terme / Photo: Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid