LONDON—Once in a while, a painting moves me to such an extent that it takes my breath away. Each of the seven rare masterpieces in “Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance,” at the National Gallery in London, had this effect.
Around one-third (seven) of Bartolomé Bermejo’s paintings are in the exhibition, six of which have never before left Spain. All can be seen until Sept. 29. Included in the exhibition are his first and last documented paintings, “Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil With the Donor Antoni Joan” (1468) and the “Desplà Pietà” (1490), along with an exquisite manuscript that details payment of the Saint Michael painting.
Each of the seven paintings is astonishing: It is like discovering a lost treasure.
Indeed, entering the small exhibition space feels like being inside a treasure chest. The deep purple walls in the dimly lit gallery evoke an intimate experience, setting the scene for the seven paintings to sparkle like jewels.
Each devotional painting conveys the minutest of details, from rich velvets, silks, and chainmail to shimmering pearls, gems, and armor. Look closely at “Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil With the Donor Antoni Joan.” You can even see the weave of the fabric, and on Saint Michael’s golden breastplate, a reflection of Jerusalem.
“He’s just so wonderful as a painter technically. I think that really does come out from this exhibition that has just very few works but all of a very high quality,” said the exhibition’s curator, Letizia Treves, in a phone interview.
The aim of the exhibition, Treves said, was to put “our picture [‘Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil With the Donor Antoni Joan,’] in context.” Even though the National Gallery’s Bermejo is lauded as the best example of early Spanish painting in Britain, Treves said that it has no real context in the collection.
The exhibition also allows us to meet one of Spain’s lesser-known painters. It was only at the end of the 19th century that Bermejo’s “Desplà Pietà” and the stained-glass window designs of the baptismal chapel in Barcelona Cathedral were attributed to him. Most of Bermejo’s work was rediscovered in the early 20th century. Born in Cordoba, he worked mainly in the towns and cities of Tous, Valencia, Daroca, Zaragoza, and Barcelona.
Treves reveals more of this great yet little-known Spanish painter.
The Epoch Times: Please tell us about Bartolomé Bermejo.
Letizia Treves: What’s interesting about Bermejo is that we know very little about him. We don’t even know when he was born or when he died. He’s really a mystery. He’s extremely enigmatic.
I suspect there are other paintings by him out there, probably not attributed, thought to be anonymous, and Netherlandish because it’s clear that he’s strongly influenced by this in his work. I hope more will be discovered. At the moment, there are fewer than 20.
Of the little we know and of the few paintings we have, it seems he had quite an itinerant career. He moved around a great deal, perhaps more so than most artists. It was hard for artists at that time to relocate because they could only really practice their art in the city in which they were permanent residents.
The moment Bermejo traveled to another town, he had to team up with a local painter, so effectively that local painter would be a sort of guarantor for him.
There is this thought that he may have been a “converso,” a Jew who converted to Christianity, and that his itinerant career is in some way linked to the Inquisition that was persecuting Jews and conversos during precisely this period. He may not have been a first-generation converso; it may have been his parent or even grandparent.
The reason we think that he may be a converso is not just his itinerant career, but he is linked quite strongly to known conversos; one was his wife. From one of the few documents we have relating to his life, we know that his wife was brought before the Inquisition and put on trial, if you like, for not knowing her creed beyond the second line. At that time, they wouldn’t have had mixed marriages, so it seems very likely that Bermejo himself was a converso too.
In Bermejo’s last documented painting, “Desplà Pietà” (1490) from the Barcelona Cathedral, the archdeacon in the painting is Lluís Desplà, the donor who commissioned the work. He was based in Barcelona and was a staunch opponent of the Inquisition, so it is thought that he may have provided Bermejo with some sort of protection in Barcelona and also certainly gave him other commissions, including stained-glass window design.
Another odd thing about Bermejo, from the little we know, it does look like he worked predominantly for a private clientele, not for monasteries or major churches. Perhaps that is also a sign that he was a converso. I also think his very unique style of painting probably appealed to individuals.
The Epoch Times: I read that he was one of the best portrait painters in Spain. Can you please tell us about that?
Ms. Treves: Portraiture wasn’t something that 15th-century Spanish artists specialized in. I think there’s a document that said that the king and queen of Spain were complaining that they couldn’t find any decent portrait painters in Spain. They had to bring them in from elsewhere in Europe.
I think what’s so astonishing about Bermejo is that his characterizations and portraits are exceptional. These are integrated within a devotional work. When you blow them up as details, they work as standalone portraits, but they also function very importantly in each of these three masterpieces: the “Desplà Pietà,” the “Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat,” and “Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil With the Donor Antoni Joan.” The donor is very physically present before the religious figure to whom the altarpiece or painting was dedicated to.
The “Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat” (probably 1470–75) was specifically painted for the Italian cloth-merchant Francesco della Chiesa, seen kneeling in the picture. The painting was hung in Valencia, but on his death at the beginning of the 16th century, the picture was sent back to his family in Northern Italy in Acqui Terme, where the picture has been ever since.
In fact, what’s so lovely is that one of the wings in that triptych is actually damaged by candle flames. I don’t know if you noticed, but on the left-hand wing there’s an area where it has been burned by the flames of the candles burning in front of the picture. But it reminds you that these objects were devotional objects; they were used. The donors would’ve knelt before them and prayed.
Similarly, the “Desplà Pietà,” from the Barcelona Cathedral, was painted for Desplà’s chapel within his home attached to the cathedral. It now hangs within the cathedral itself in the room where Desplà’s tomb is, so it is still very much connected to the place for which it was painted. I have to say, it took quite a bit of convincing for Barcelona Cathedral to send it to London. It had never been sent abroad.
Both the “Desplà Pietà” and the “Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat” have never been seen in the UK.
I feel personally that one of the most successful things of the show, and one of the things I am most proud of, is that sometimes less is more. You can say so much with three great masterpieces. I think with those three pictures (the “Desplà Pietà,” the “Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat,” and “Saint Michael Triumphs Over the Devil”), you really see a trajectory in the artist’s works, but you can also see what he’s trying to achieve in each picture.
I think he’s someone who is very singular in Spain. He’s extremely difficult to pigeonhole. I did find it fascinating working on Bermejo because I realized there isn’t anyone really like him in Spain at that time.
To find out more about “Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance” at the National Gallery, London, visit NationalGallery.org.uk
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.