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Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil by Bartolomé Bermejo: A Strange Devil Indeed

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

Saint Michael Triumphant Over the Devil with the Donor Antoni Joan (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

(oil and gold on wood) (National Gallery in London)


I absolutely love this painting for its cartoonish and futuristic looking depiction of a devil.


This painting portrays the Archangel Michael defeating the devil, as recounted in the Book of Revelation. Michael is dressed in shining armour and his sword is raised gracefully above his head. His face betrays no fear, but rather, a calm serenity. His shiny golden breastplate reflects the Gothic spires of Heavenly Jerusalem.


A devil cowers at his feet. The devil is composed of a variety of animals. Its torso features a second face, and there is a snake emerging from the gaping mouth in his stomach. There are reptilian heads at its elbows. Its crocodile-like tail wraps around Saint Michael’s right calf. To the devil’s right, there are poppies; a symbol of death. Bermejo has painted them next to the devil to foreshadow its inevitable demise.


The kneeling man to Michael’s left is the donor of the painting, Antoni Joan (the Lord of Tous). He is dressed in a silk brocade robe (which originally would have been more purple in tone). The gold chain around Antoni’s neck and his sword make him a knight. In his hands, he holds a small book with two legible Penitential Psalms (in Latin text), psalms used for the forgiveness of sins. Unlike the idealised Saint Michael, Antoni has a naturalistic face featuring wrinkles and stubble.


This painting originally formed part of a multi-panelled altarpiece commissioned for the church of San Miguel in Tous. This is one of the most significant early Spanish paintings in Britain, and the earliest documented work by the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo. His signature (featuring the Latin version of his nickname ‘Rubeus’) is visible on a painted folded piece of parchment at the bottom left of the composition.


The textures of this rich painting are astounding. You really feel you can reach out and touch Michael’s feathered wings and his billowing and crumpled cloak.


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