Bermejo remains a mysterious figure though widely regarded as the most important Spanish painter of the late Middle Ages. At a certain stage in planning a recent exhibition of his work in Madrid and Barcelona the organisers decided to make the accompanying publication a catalogue raisonné. It turns out that there are only sixteen surviving paintings, if you count multiple panels belonging to a single altarpiece as one. None of these composites survives complete or intact — dispersed, partly lost and in every case reliant on historians to reconstruct them.
The artist himself endured a similar fate. He was a person without a permanent address, probably a Jewish converso, sometimes keeping one step ahead of the Inquisition, which once convicted his wife of forgetting the words of the Creed. He worked in towns where he wasn’t a citizen and therefore needed a sponsor from the local painters’ guild in order to practice his trade at all. So his larger commissions are generally adulterated by the contributions of these less talented sponsors, and I have included here only the central panels of larger works where Bermejo’s own hand is probably responsible for all of it.
Bermejo may also have been restless and unreliable on his own account, so that an excommunication clause was added to the contract in case he tried to get out of doing all the scenes himself. He was excommunicated for leaving before he’d started the smaller scenes of the St Dominic of Silos altarpiece. Bermejo means red in Spanish (vermilion: orange-red), and no one knows if that was the colour of his hair or his complexion, the sign of a choleric temperament.
Oddly enough the painter’s earliest dated work, a depiction of St Michael tangling with the devil, is dominated by an atmospheric disturbance in red, the archangel’s cloak like a violent thunderstorm in the heavens. But the angel doesn’t lose his cool as he dispatches a Satan who’s the manageable size of a pet, and seems to be laughing and waving as much as signaling distress or begging for mercy. He is a weird anatomical enigma whose nipples are a second set of red eyes over a breathing hole and a second mouth full of sharp teeth. The saint is covered in metal and the monster is mainly made of it. The armour of both of them is extraordinarily ingenious but doesn’t look quite serious — a shield made of a lump of crystal, a polished breast plate that reflects the skyline of the Heavenly Jerusalem (not Seville, as I used to think).
But the really electrifying component is that red cloak more like a mountain range than a cloudscape, of folds magically lit with random bursts of light. And it is only the lining. Whenever the cape is at rest it shows as heavy gold brocade, a side of the garment now reduced to a twisted remnant like a broken pot. And finally there’s a drastic contradiction between the excitement of the cape and the angel’s trance-like languor.
The human-sized onlooker, like other similar Bermejo people, has barely looked up from his reading, or more likely he is somewhere else, not in the middle of the moment as we wrongly suppose. His composure is his distance.
He is a hangover from an earlier stage when donors could appear to witness the great highlights of Christian history because they weren’t taking place in ordinary time or recognisable landscapes. Bermejo’s most compelling pictures often occur in ritual space, a kind of no-place. One of the most powerful shows a local saint in ecclesiastical finery in a setting that is essentially a glorified niche, as if he were a statue decorating a Gothic building. The painting is finished off with a wooden canopy, a miniature taste of actual architecture which is permitted to cast real shadows onto the fantastic painted constructions below.
He is so shrouded in gilded paraphernalia that he ceases to seem much like a being of flesh and blood, if it weren’t for a few contrary traces. He is clean-shaven but there are signs that his beard is growing, silver stubble just beginning to show on his cheeks. And the six tiny statues (Virtues rather than the saints whom we expect) in little niches on ether side of his throne are fully coloured and demonstratively in motion. In the most extreme case, Temperance is pouring from a pitcher, and Bermejo has run together the dark colour of her cloak and a dark blot like a dragon’s tail on the saint’s cope, part of a pattern on the garment that is mostly hidden from us. So we are invited to imagine a spreading stain originating in an inadvertent spillage of Temperance’s remixed wine.
There is another sign of things getting out of hand at the highest point of the throne. The red jewel that crowns the saint’s mitre has started a fire at Charity’s feet which so far burns only her and hasn’t spread to the poor men sheltering under her.
The bishop’s throne becomes a niche, in this case a complicated diagonal and hierarchical form leading us in and at the same time creating a sense of the sacred as unapproachable, even as it shows the route to it, setting up a goal that’s straight in front of you, yet just beyond a boundary at which you most stop.
The image is neatly balanced between highly focal and impossibly complicated. The harder we look the less sure we are where the throne ends. Is the shrinking series of little figures, who are more lifelike (in the strange terms of the painting) than statues, just further extensions of this diagonal construction, impossibly rich emanations of the main body fighting hard against the idea that a painting is above all a flat surface?
One of the most ingenious touches is the ornate shepherd’s crook that the saint has leant crookedly against the side wall of his throne, partly blotting out Hope holding another staff that is breaking into leaf. In some sense his staff dotted with gold leaf-forms has got the better of hers and introduced a taste of the randomness of life and of unpredictable movement into the fixity of art, all of it taking place in a hall of mirrors devised by one of the most complete anti-naturalists in the history of art. Yet Bermejo is called Hispano-Flemish in recognition of all the evidence that he had studied realists like van Eyck, a thread not just distracting but pulling us off in quite the wrong direction. He borrowed postures and whole compositions and put them to uses the Northerners would have thought perverse and retrograde, creating hypnotic images in which we might just as reasonably find the sprit of Tibetan mandalas.
When Bermejo comes to depict the old subject of the Virgin of Mercy he inscribes it within a kind of pattern you might find embossed on a moth’s outspread wings: first the angels’ wings crisscrossing over the Virgin’s head and then the smaller Xs on their chests which wander off into the pile-up of cloth that seems to fill the spaces created by the swoops of the Virgin’s cape, swoops which form larger Xs with the down-tending diagonals of her arms. This mesmerising Rorschach-design with the Virgin’s mask-like face at its centre hovers over two diagonal wings of devotees, fused together by more of Bermejo’s trademark gold filigree, made of copes on the left and crowns on the right, the latter consisting of openwork which lets through the faces of the next row of devotees behind.
The most mysterious element of all is the Virgin’s undergarment, revealed by the angels’ lifting movement, an inner feature like the kernel of a shrine, another lining that steals the show from its covering. This undergarment is an amazing construction like antique patchwork, an assemblage of pieces of rich brocades in a variety of dusky tonalities, a ruin-collage of historical fabrics, like relics once owned and worn by various royal martyrs and spiritual heroes of past eras, a compost heap of much old virtue, and also wealth. It is one of the richest and most interesting passages in all of Bermejo, the Book of Kells and Arthur Rackham bundled up together. The patches often run diagonally against the orientation of the garment, creating the kind of multiple rhythm Bermejo favours, moving as so often against the grain of the natural world and the force of gravity.
Bermejo’s most powerful pictures are often not compositions at all, but patterns with a strong focus and ancillary detail radiating hieratically outward from that core or, if they are or initially appear as figure groups, they are shown at moments of utter immobility, emanating from a corpse whose attendants copy its stillness.
Christ with two angels at the tomb seems an utterly simple, rock bottom sort of image, yet unaccountably mesmerising. There is a famous rendering of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Holbein which Dostoevsky couldn’t dislodge from his mind. It shows the prone corpse in a narrow horizontal frame, constricted like a coffin. Holbein has spared us no detail of the grimness of physical death. The mouth sags open showing clenched teeth. The body is covered with suppurating sores, the eyes stare upward, hands and feet are stiffened in the moment when movement ceased and blackened by blood drawn there by the mode of death. Dostoevsky uses the painting in The Idiot to shake the faith of a naturally devout character.
In Bermejo’s painting Christ seems to have survived the crucifixion. No rigor mortis and just enough energy to point to the spear wound in his side. Critics even think he is squeezing the flesh to make the blood gush forth, but surely he is showing old blood, not producing more. Apparently there were active discussions going on when this was painted over whether bleeding in the three days between the Crucifixion and Resurrection was deserving of veneration or adoration (two distinct grades of devotion). Bermejo is thought to have come down on the side of veneration only, as shown by the inclusion of the gorgeous chalice (here his love of jeweled ecclesiastical metalwork breaks out unexpectedly) which is empty – that is to say, this blood isn’t suitable for the Sacrament.
The power of the painting comes in part from the diagonal composition which increases the surprising asymmetry of the two angels’ locations, their spacing and their roles – Christ leans on one and not the other. He has come part-way out of the tomb to tell us something, silently. He emerges fitfully from the gloom, a way of insisting on the incomplete state of our knowledge, an effect perhaps less powerful since the recent cleaning of this work, which has brought the flesh of the dead and the living into closer alignment. The angels’ flesh (ordinarily angels are not fleshly creatures) now looks so entirely that of bodies that will die, making the melancholy at-oneness of the three more complete.*
Bermejo’s last surviving painting is known as the Desplà Pietà, after the learned humanist who commissioned it and appears on the right, just below another representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It includes another innovative treatment of Christ’s corpse, a severe challenge to any painter’s naturalism and his spirituality. Those who want to find progressive tendencies in this painter spend time on the rich but gloomy landscape, full of a great variety of species that would have exercised the humanist patron’s scientific curiosity.
Here Christ’s body has the uncanny air of a ruin, powerfully mottled, as if stained by age, not like a statue, but not like any flesh I ever saw, not like old cheese either, but that comparison catches something of the living-unliving quality of this body. The dark smudge of hair on Christ’s chest is crucial to the effect, like a discolouration rather than a natural event.
There’s a naïve oddity shared with Christ and Two Angels at the Tomb. On his right arm Christ’s blood runs markedly uphill. Formerly it dripped down; now it is fixed in an unnatural position. This seems to contradict the figure’s more than relaxed posture with all tension gone, just as rigor mortis begins to replace it.
We notice a few signs of the old Bermejo – in the green lining of the Virgin’s cloak whose crinkled furls are put in competition with exemplary plants in the landscape. The cape can stand up in leaf-like forms which Bermejo continues to find more absorbing than actual leaves. And one telling sign of the new Bermejo: how do you tell a living from a dead body? Desplà’s beard is still growing and producing stubble – here Bermejo verges near that fearless realist Holbein.
*The illustration above shows Christ with two angels at the tomb before cleaning
This post was suggested by a small but fascinating exhibition which brought six Bermejos (including the Desplà Pietà) from Spain to London after the big Spanish exhibition of 2018-19 was disbanded.