Dear Readers, wherever I am, and whatever I’m doing, my eyes are always drawn towards animals and plants. It doesn’t matter what the ostensible subject matter of an exhibition is, I’ll be the one spotting the dragon, or the beetle, or the clump of daisies. Maybe this is one reason why I have a great liking for the paintings of the 15th Century – in amongst all the saints and angels you might spot a dog or a butterfly, as with my great favourite, the Venetian artist Carpaccio. However, the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo was a new discovery for me. He is known to have painted only twenty pictures in his lifetime (1440 – 1501) and the National Gallery in London currently has an exhibition of seven of his paintings, six of which have never been seen in the UK before. I stood in front of ‘St Michael Triumphs Over the Devil’ for about ten minutes.
I adore the combination of virtuoso realism combined with dark imagination. Have a look at the armour, for example. I love the sheen, the setting of the jewels, and the texture of the velvet. I feel as if I could walk up and give the breastplate a quick rap.
But the devil is something else. He reminds of me of an angler fish rather than the more typical lizard, but there is something rather horrible about the bird-like talons with the insect-like forearm. The devil also has butterfly wings that look rather like those of a meadow brown. The devil’s breastplate has it’s own set of fishy eyes, and a second set of teeth. All in all, it looks as if Bermejo has conducted some ghastly ‘Island of Dr Moreau’ experiment, and the devil is the ghastly result.
Most of the people viewing the paintings of this period would have been illiterate, and so this art was instructional as well as decorative. I love the way that the Annunciation is often depicted as a shaft of light piercing the breast of the Virgin, and the way that the saints hold the instruments of their martyrdom with a blithe serenity that belies their terrible deaths.
But combined with the imagination shown in the depiction of the devil, there is very close observation of a whole range of plants, which grow at the foot of the painting. The devil’s feet are surrounded by red poppies (Papaver rhoeas), then, as now, a symbol of death.
I am a bit puzzled by the blue flowers however, and wonder if the plant is actually a southern globethistle (Echinops ritro), a plant that is found in Spain and which may soon feature as a Wednesday Weed.
I also love the contrast between St Michael’s serene, unperturbed face, and the much more realistic face of the patron who financed the work, Antoni Joan. It incapsulates the difference between the divine world of the saints, and the real world of man.
Bermejo was a Spanish painter during a time when all the real ‘action’ was in Italy and Northern Europe. Indeed, he is thought to have been familiar with some of the works that were being created in the Low Countries during this period. But I sense a strong Spanish sensibility in his paintings. Have a look at The Desplà Pietá (1490) below. The idealisation of St Michael, and of the Virgin in previous paintings, is replaced by an unflinching realism that I find very moving.
And how about St Jerome’s lion, curled up in the corner? He reminds me, again, of Carpaccio’s depiction of St Jerome bringing his lion home, to the chagrin of the other monks. In Bermejo’s image there is a fly on the nose of the lion, so have a look if you visit the exhibition.
And so, there it is, a combination of exquisitely detailed natural features and toothy devils, of grey flesh and cuddly lions. It feels as if Bermejo almost couldn’t resist stuffing his paintings with more and more ‘stuff’. Maybe he was a show-off, or maybe he just wanted to include all the things that he could see, and most of the things that he could imagine. If you have time and you’re in London, go and have a look (the exhibition is free). It’s on until the end of September.
Photo One by By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15848905