A HAIRY Jesus. A laughing dragon. A see-thru loin-cloth. These are just some of the startling details to be discovered in the works of Bartolome de Cardenas, Spain’s greatest master of 15th century Gothic art.
Known as ‘El Bermejo’ for his ruddy complexion, his iconographic pieces are distinguishable by an extraordinary command of oil techniques coupled with quixotic imagery that plays with light, colour and texture.
While a remarkable exhibition is just ending at London’s National Gallery, very little is known of the painter, or of his life, save for 20 paintings scattered throughout Europe and the Americas.
Academics and art critics have scoured his works for clues hinting at the man behind the brush, hoping to fill in the gaps in his contested story.
Thought to be born in Cordoba between 1440-1445, Bermejo is often described as a ‘nomadic painter’ whose Judeo-Christian identity may have led him to flee from persecution during the Spanish Inquisition.
His wife, Gracia de Palaciano, was a wealthy widow captured and condemned for her Jewish beliefs by the Inquisition.
On the floor is a cowering Satan whose glowering Cheshire Cat smile is as chilling as it is outlandish
The style and details found in Bermejo’s paintings suggest he lived in a number of places around Spain, including Valencia, the small village of Daroca, near Zaragoza and Barcelona.
Differentiating him from his Spanish contemporaries, however, is the distinctly Flemish influence imbued in Bermejo’s every brushstroke.
The art of maestros such as Roger Van de Weyden, Robert Campin, and Jan Van Eyck are thought to have been key to teaching Bermejo the techniques at the foundation of his works.
In Valencia, Bermejo produced the first of four major masterpieces, Saint Michael Triumphs Over the Devil (1468).
Widely regarded as his most famous work, it currently hangs on display in London’s National Gallery, presented next to six other Bermejo pieces.
The lofty 1.82-metre painting featuring the archangel Saint Michael serenely defeating the devil is a study in astonishing detail.
The angel’s face is reminiscent of a Humpty Dumpty etching, its porcelain features in stark contrast to the billowing burgundy of his cloak and realistic rendering of his chainmail.
On the floor is a cowering Satan whose glowering Cheshire Cat smile is as chilling as it is outlandish.
In 1486, after a brief interlude in the painter’s life, Bermejo appeared in Barcelona where he produced his other most famous work: Despla Pieta.
The painting depicts a weeping Virgin Mary cradling her dead son. Also on display at the National Gallery exhibition, it is the first time the piece has left Spain.
According to art critic Waldemar Januszczak of The Sunday Times, the work is special not for the Flemish influences in the technique but for the uniquely Spanish ‘mayhem’ and ‘unexpected sense of humour’ present around every corner.
“This includes a Roman soldier covering his ears at hairy-chested Jesus’ explosive resurrection,” he writes.
He adds that anyone interested in art should look out for this forgotten artistic genius, whose ‘Spanish vision’ deserves the attention and praise that was so lacking for centuries.
Bermejo’s works can be seen at the National Gallery in London until September 29 or at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao.