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Art review: ‘Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance’

13 September 2019

Nicholas Cranfield on the National Gallery’s Bermejo exhibition

© Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya 2019

Bartolomé Bermejo, Christ with the Just in Paradise, c.1470-75, on loan from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (permanent loan from Fundació Privada Institut Amatller d’Art Hispànic, 2018), MNAC 251907. See gallery for more pictures

Bartolomé Bermejo, Christ with the Just in Paradise, c.1470-75, on loan from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (permanent loan from Fun...

IN THE Western Church, the feast of St Michael and All Angels is now observed on 29 September (whereas in the East it is kept on 8 November), but once it was a day later, as the dedication festival of a Roman basilica on the Via Salaria.

Michaelmas Day is still one of the Quarter Days and marks the start of the legal year and the academic years of both Oxford and Cambridge. It was often associated with rents’ falling due, bequests’ being paid, and other legal encumbrances.

Following the revisions of Archbishop Cranmer, the successive Prayer Books of 1549, 1552, 1559, and 1662 retained only such feasts as were “biblical”. Michael is mentioned four times in scripture (twice in Daniel, at 10.13ff and 12.1, and in both the Letter of Jude and the Revelation to St John, 12.7-9). In the medieval period, churches on hills were placed under his patronage, thanks largely to the apparition reported at Mount Garganus in the lifetime of Pope Gelasius (492-96).

The current in-depth exhibition at the National Gallery, in a chapel-like side room off the principal staircase, which centres on a panel (1468) of St Michael Triumphant over the Devil, with the Donor Antoni Joan, will close on 29 September.

The panel, from an altarpiece painted for a church at Tous on the River Júcar which now lies at the bottom of a reservoir, is the first documented painting by Bartolomé Bermejo. It had remained at Tous, about 30 miles inland from Valencia, until the end of the 19th century, when it was sold off to a German dealer. The National Gallery acquired it in 1995 from the sale at Luton Hoo of the Wernher collection.

Few paintings by Bermejo (c.1440-c.1501) are known to survive, possibly only 20, as shown during the recent winter show at the Prado. Bermejo, whose nickname suggests that he was red-headed, was born in Cordoba and worked in Valencia.

His peripatetic career in Spain suggests that he may have been a converso, a forced convert from Judaism to Christianity.

Alongside the National’s own painting are four smaller panels from a reredos of the Life of Christ and a triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat, painted around 1470-75 for an Italian cloth merchant, Francesco della Chiesa, who presented it to his home cathedral at Acqui Terme in northern Italy, and a plangent Pietà commissioned in 1490 by Lluís Desplà, the archdeacon of Barcelona.

The International Gothic painters of Spain in the period all, like Bermejo, betray a knowledge of Netherlandish art and of the technique of oil-painting which allowed them to paint in exquisite detail, justifying Bermejo’s title “master of the Spanish Renaissance”. That they are so little known in the UK is both an accident of history and of taste.

One thinks of the Salamancan Fernando Gallego (c.1440-1507), who is best-known for his altar for Ciudad Rodrigo; Pedro Berruguete (c.1450-1504), who worked in Urbino and portrayed a stern-looking Borgia pope Alexander VI (a portrait now hanging in a corridor in the Vatican art gallery); and the Valencian Juan Rexach (fl.1431-82) and Sevillian Pedro Sánchez Castro (fl.1454-84).

What they share is a grasp of the minutiae, such as the heavenly Jerusalem that is reflected in Michael’s breastplate, and the Latin texts of the opening verses of two penitential psalms (Psalms 51 and 130) which are still legible in Antoni’s prayer-book.

In the four panels from Barcelona — The Descent into Limbo, Christ with the Just in Paradise, Resurrection, and Ascension — the same model serves for Christ, surrounded by a variety of textures: fabrics, marbles, heavy velvet (the Virgin’s mourning cloak as she prays at the ascension), and softer landscapes all suggest a remarkable command of painterly decoration.

“Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance” is in Room 1, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC1, until 29 September. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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