You may already know Bartolomé Bermejo’s 1468 painting St Michael Triumphant over the Devil. For more than 22 years, it hung in room 64 of the National Gallery, where its lithe, colossus of a protagonist, clad in golden armour so gleaming that a city is reflected in his breastplate, was perpetually about to gore his demon opponent with a sword.
It’s entirely possible, though, that you walked past it without more than a glance. Not only did it keep company with works by the starrier likes of Rogier van der Weyden and Jan Van Eyck – the Arnolfini marriage portrait, for one – over the centuries since Bermejo painted it, the picture had discoloured and dulled markedly, losing both vibrancy and legibility. It also suffered a botched restoration in the 19th century, combined with damage to the lower edge from a flood in the church in Tous, near Valencia, where the painting hung patiently for the first four centuries of its life.
All of which led, in 2017, to a year-long conservation treatment, the spectacular results of which are the centrepiece of a new display devoted to Bermejo in Room 1, which I always think of the National Gallery’s vestibule or private chapel: dark and velvety quiet – a world away from the holy mess outside.
For the exhibition, the newly resplendent St Michael is reunited with six other paintings by the Spanish Bermejo (c1440-c1501), of only 20 that are known to have survived. Five of them have never been seen outside Spain before. Two have never left the chapels in which they were first hung.
Bermejo is a tantalisingly elusive figure. He sometimes signs himself “rubeus”, which is the Latin rendering of his nickname, “Bermejo”, meaning “reddish” in Spanish – he probably he had a ruddy complexion, or red hair. Bartolomeo de Cardenas (the name he also used) came from Córdoba, Andalusia, in the Kingdom of Castile, but most of his documented activity took place in the Kingdom of Aragon, where he flitted between Valencia, Daroca, Zaragoza and Barcelona.
That itinerancy has added to the notion that he was a converso – a Jew who converted to Christianity, and therefore at constant risk from persecution. This is underlined by the subject matter of his paintings (what better way to assert his new faith to the all-seeing eye of the Inquisition than painting scenes from the life of Christ). His wife, Gracia, was actually tried at an auto-da-fé, the public ceremony at which the Inquisitor’s sentences were pronounced and carried out, for not knowing the Credo, though mercifully she escaped the gruesome fate of most others pronounced heretics.
What’s in the pictures, then? Lots and lots. There is filigree embroidery and billowing cloth, in folds so crisp it seems to crackle. Flocks of migratory birds soar in formation over rocky precipices; plants in the foreground seem so real that they jut upward from the painting. A tiny goldfinch, a butterfly, a beautiful sailing ship, even a windmill. Each cloud is unique, every fingernail carefully rendered. The figure of Lluis Despla, the donor who commissioned the gorgeous Desplà Pietà (1490), has an ear poking sweetly out of his hair. The christ child in the Montserrat Triptych (1470-75) has rosy, dimpled knees. The finish of St Michael’s face has the satiny feel of Victorian découpage.
Wherever you look, another marvel hits you. Each painting is so bounteous, so worming with motifs and stories, that you could return to it throughout your entire life and keep finding something new. I wandered from one to another, wallowing in Bermejo’s near limitless imagination, which sounds everywhere in these scenes. Half an hour in front of the Pietà, and I was only just getting started.
Somewhere in the ancestry of these works you can detect a Dutch influence. In their attention to texture and light, for instance; in the clutches of plants at the paintings’ edges (a device used by van Eyck) and in the cramming of detail, common to Hieronymous Bosch. Though Bermejo never left Spain – he must have seen copies.
But few artists active at that time come close to him in resonance, humour or precision. It makes you wonder what artists have been doing in the centuries since. On every square inch, there is something to absorb and to amuse. To ignore this show because it’s small is to miss the point. It’s an unqualified delight to revel in the detail. Astonishment is the fitting response.
Until Sept 29. Details: 020 7747 2885; nationalgallery.org