Painting of the month for July 2016

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil

1468. Oil and gold on wood National Gallery, London

I came across this painting recently while spending an afternoon in the National Gallery with an audio guide (something I had never done before for some reason). Looking around the beautiful 13th – 15th century rooms in the Sainsbury Wing, I was immediately struck by how fantastic this painting is. My recent POTM sojourn into more modern (or rather 19th century) made me long for something old, and so this was the obvious choice for this month’s painting.

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo has a definite Medieval quality, it feels untouchable and so far removed from today. The hierarchical scale marks the saint out as a holy being, larger than man to the left. The devil is a beastly amalgamation of animals (snake, bat, bird, maybe a bit of dragon) with multiple limbs, eyes and mouths, straight from the imagination of the Middle Ages. There is very little spatial depth or sense of perspective, making the scene feel quite squashed. Grounded by the grassy floor, the backdrop is made from gold leaf, hammered with a brocade pattern. We are not invited to participate in the action, but merely watch the religious experience.

The donor of the painting, the Lord of Tous, kneels in religious devotion before the scene with a bible in his left hand, and a sword gripped under his right arm. He is unfazed by the evil before him. Looking up at the knight of God, his stillness contrasts with the flurry of the Saint’s action. Michael stands weightlessly with the poise of a dancer upon the Devil, with sword raised ready to deal the deathblow to his enemy. His face is serene and he is focused upon the task at hand. Suited in the most fabulous armour, glistening gold and encrusted with jewels and pearls, this saint is kitted out to do the work of God. His cape, lined with what seems to be red silk or satin shimmers, and the outside is richly … damask. His shield is made from glass or crystal, reflecting the devil’s monstrous face back at him.

There is very little to talk about in regards to emotion or naturalism, and there is a distinct lack of ‘human’ in it. But it has a purpose to tell us something, not make us feel something. However we can start to see a development towards a cultural evolution, for example in the use of oil paints. Northern Renaissance artists (namely Van Eyck) perfected the technique, creating vibrantly clear colour and touchable textures never before seen in the history of art. Bermejo is showing his virtuoso handling through the depiction of sumptuous fabrics, especially in the lining of Saint’s cape, and glassy crystal shield, reflecting the devil’s monstrous face right back at him.




To see a hi-res zoomable image see: