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  HOME | Arts & Entertainment

Bartolome Bermejo: Renaissance Masterpieces Exhibited in UK for First Time

LONDON – Barely anything is known about Bartolome de Cardenas, a 15th-century Spanish painter, but for the curator of a unique London exhibition, he was one of the best oil painters of his time.

Bermejo (1440-1501), as he became known, was thought to be a “converso” (a Jew who converted to Christianity) and although only 20 paintings attributed to him exist, his contemporaries and, later, art historians consider his technique truly groundbreaking for his time.

“He’s such an individual figure in Spain, there’s no one really like him at all and I think that’s both because of his technical skill, just so good at painting in oils,” Letizia Treves, the curator of a show at the National Gallery in London, told EFE.

“So much so that people think he’s trained in The Netherlands because they cannot understand how he is on a different level,” the expert added.

Little is known about this Renaissance artist, who was nicknamed Bermejo (meaning reddish in Spanish) due to distinctive features such as red hair or a ruddy complexion, although a recent exhibition at the Prado in Spain has compiled the most comprehensive documentation about the painter to date.

The show at the National Gallery is considerably more modest and comprised within one space.

“Here I wanted a more intense experience just one room but really the best of the best,” Treves said.

From the first verified Bermejo painting, “Saint Michael Triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan” (1468) to his last known masterpiece “Despla Pieta” (1490) which was named after the person who commissioned the work, Lluis Despla, the then archdeacon of Barcelona, viewers can expect to see masterpieces on show in the United Kingdom for the first time.

One of the few documents that proved the existence of the artist is exhibited in the middle of the room where a “Manuscript” (1468) showing an advance the painter received from Antoni Joan, a nobleman, that describes Bermejo as a painter and citizen of the city of Valencia in eastern Spain.

The “Saint Michael Triumphant over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan” painting hangs opposite the manuscript.

Perhaps his most emblematic work, it was thought to have been the central panel of an altarpiece.

The oil painting is a wonderful example of the artist’s exquisite use of color and texture.

“The technique is an oil painting, which was being used in Spain but not this degree of refinement which you see more in Netherlandish art, and in our picture, in particular, look at the reflections, the textures, the cloth, the armor, he’s very, very, careful at describing textures,” Treves said of the artwork.

His mastery of the Dutch technique, spearheaded by artists such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, led many contemporary collectors of the time to request other artists to mimic his style.

But for Treves, Bermejo was also deeply Spanish.

“People say this is very Netherlandish but actually it’s very Spanish: the way the panel is constructed, the gold back, this is very Spanish,” she continued.

The content of his paintings is steeped in religious iconography but because many of his clients were private collectors, the main characters are noblemen and the subject matter drifts from the strictly religious.

“With his iconography, he is so imaginative, so in this one for example the Virgin of Montserrat (‘Triptych of the Virgin of Montserrat’) (from around 1470–75), here he puts the virgin on a saw throne, so she is sitting on a carpenters saw, I’ve never seen it before it’s very unique iconography,” the curator mused.

The triptych was made for an Italian cloth merchant called Francesco Della Chiesa.

Four panels which are on loan from collectors in Barcelona, “Descent of Christ into Limbo” “Resurrection,” “Christ entering Paradise” and “Ascension,” prove his mastery with texture with the way he treated the sheer gauze fabric that draped around Jesus’ body.

“The four pieces are like a predella, the reason I borrowed them is because there are lots of points in common with the devils and the armor,” Treves explained.

“It was thought that they were the panels of an altarpiece, now it’s known it’s not the case, they were paired so it was two pairs and they probably had a tabernacle in the middle,” she added.

For the curator, this is a truly remarkable experience for UK audiences who will get a glimpse of the enigmatic artist but widely unknown due to his nomadic and mysterious life.

“We can see a real evolution, this is the earliest and this is the latest and there are 22 years between these and I think you really can see a journey but I just think it’s his powers of invention and his technical skill,” Treves concluded.


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