Walking around this impressive one-room exhibition , I was reminded of another artist on show in the National Gallery’s permanent collection, down the corridor. Because Bartolomé Bermejo, like the better-known Antonello da Messina, was a painter of the south that was as influenced by the Northern Renaissance as what was going on in Italy at the time.
There’s an echo of van Eyck and van der Weyden in these artists: their jewel-like clarity; the comparative disinterest in anatomical correctness and the new rules of perspective; the love lavished on different surfaces and materials. My favourite surface of Bermejo’s show was St Michael’s pointy metallic shoes, daintily astride the devil as he braces for the final sword-stroke.
St Michael Triumphing Over the Devil
According to the show notes, Bermejo never actually saw the Flemish works in situ, but instead studied those paintings that had made it to his native Spain. This close study led to the glorious impracticality of those strings of pearls attached to the saint’s ankles - rendered in mind-bending miniature detail. Not to mention the devil’s eyes and nipples, glowing like red rubies.
I’d seen this work, Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil in the National Gallery’s permanent collection before - many times. It’s his earliest-surviving painting, as far as we know. Elsewhere in the room is Bermejo’s last work, on loan from Barcelona Cathedral. The Desplà Pieta brings a different kind of lush detail, in the technicolour clouds over the statue-like Virgin’s head, the unbelievably Spanish face of the donor, kneeling on the right (sort of Pep Guardiola with a moptop) and the gorgeous folds of St Jerome’s red cloak, his lion at his feet.
Which brings me back to da Messina, whose St Jerome in his Study , crouched over his books with lion skulking in the shadows, over in the Sainsbury Wing, also brings together these great, geographically separate, Renaissance schools.
Bartolomé Bermejo: Master of the Spanish Renaissance is at the National Gallery (London). June 12 - September 29 2019