St Michael defeats the devil in Renaissance Spain

St Michael defeats the devil in Renaissance Spain


(piano jazz music) – [Male Host] We’re in The Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a large panel
painting by an artist who goes by the name
the Master of Belmonte. We use that term, Master,
when we can’t identify the individual artist. – [Female Host] The Master
of Belmonte is from Aragon, in Spain, in the 15th Century. The painting we’re looking at here depicts St. Michael the Archangel
as he spears the devil. – [Male Host] And what a devil that is. We often see St. Michael
in Last Judgment scenes often holding the scales that weigh the blessed and the damned to determine who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. But he’s also commonly
shown defeating evil. – [Female Host] When
he’s shown in this way he’s often dressed in
armor which he is here. He’s dressed in fabulous armor. And he’s standing on top of the devil. It is symbolic of the Church Militant, this idea of the church triumphant over sin, over the devil. – [Male Host] But here the
artist has been really playful. The devil is awful, he’s disgusting, he’s really vile, but
he’s also almost comical. – [Female Host] Instead of
showing an individual body of the devil we have a
figure that is made up of all these different composite creatures and demons and they’re biting each other and forming this anthropomorphized demon. We see bird heads are
twisting here and there. We see bird talons. We see what look like dog heads. We see reptilian creatures
biting the arms of a body. We see all these different
faces across this figure. And then what I can only
describe as the hair that looks like some Dr. Seuss figure. – [Male Host] Particularly
disgusting for me, are the frog and the snake
that are coming out of the ear. And of course the insects that
are crawling all over him. – [Female Host] We see
the tail of this creature is formed of a bird head and it’s eating an insect in its mouth. And we see all these
scaly reptilian creatures that were associated with evil, that were associated with the devil. – [Male Host] It’s
interesting that although there’s a spear going
through the devil’s mouth, the devil is actually
in a comfortable repose. As if, the devil is on the beach. – [Female Host] The
devil’s here on the ground, reclining, whereas St.
Michael is standing atop him looking very regal, very composed. He is standing in chain
mail and he holds a shield. His sword is around his waist. He’s holding the spear in his right hand, his left hand is holding a shield. And then his beautiful wings
are spread out behind him moving forward as if to envelope him. – [Male Host] The artist
has really lavished attention and detail on Michael. Look at the peacock feathers
that make up those wings. And when the painting was new and bright, it must have been absolutely spectacular. – [Female Host] And then
there’s the other wings that are different colors. We see lime greens, and
light pink, and golden hues. And not to be outdone, is the
remainder of the painting. The Master of Belmonte
really did spare no expense in terms of details. It is a true feast for the eyes. – [Male Host] We see that
in the tiles on the floor. Where we seem to see
references to Islamic tiles, tiles that were common
in Spain at this time. – [Female Host] The Master of
Belmonte is Spanish artist, but we see a lot of
characteristics that we typically identify with Netherlandish
or Flemish painting, and that’s because in the 15th century you have a lot of artists who are adapting and using Flemish painting
techniques and characteristics. For instance we see the
close attention to details, the attention to different textures. We see the use of oil painting. The painting is actually a combination of both tempera and oil painting, but the use of oil painting
with different glazes to build up a richer color palette. And we really see that spectacularly here in the cape that St. Michael is wearing. Where he’s wearing this blue cape and the inside is this brilliant deep red. – [Male Host] I want to go back to a word you used just a moment
ago, which was texture. Because this is not a flat painting. The artist has actually built up in gesso the sections of this to
create a sculptural quality as if this was relief carving. – [Female Host] In art
history we tend to call this pastiglia which is an
Italian word that denotes when an artist has built
up these three dimensional qualities on the painted surface. And as we get closer to the painting, and you see the light shining on it, it really does add this
intensity to the painting where it really does seem like this figure is about to walk off the
two dimensional surface into your space. – [Male Host] And it’s
important to remember that we should not be seeing
this painting in a museum. This was intended to be seen
in a church environment. It would have been lit by
light that was filtering in through windows high up on the wall, by candles, and by oil lanterns. And of course the flames
would flicker and would dance across the surface,
enlivening this figure. – [Female Host] And much
of the surfaces here that are done in gesso, in relief, are ones that are gilded or in silver. So they’re associated with more luxury, but they would have reflected
that light more brightly. I want to go back to something you said which is that we would
have seen this in a church. This painting is actually
just a small portion of what would have been a
much larger alter piece. – [Male Host] A polyptych
with numerous scenes that probably would have represented numerous scenes and many different saints. – [Female Host] And
because it’s in a church you expect to see saints
and other types of symbols and motifs that would
accentuate their holiness, and we see that in this painting. If we look behind St.
Michael for instance, we can make out that there
is this beautiful brocade that’s hanging behind him. You can make out the blue
and white striped wall on top of which the brocade is hanging. It not only accentuates the
importance of St. Michael here, but it adds even greater surface
texture to this painting. – [Male Host] That brocade
is magnificent and in it we can recognize a fairly standard motif which is known as the
pomegranate and thistle motif. And the lavishness of this brocade would have been associated
with the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. – [Female Host] This is not only a design that’s taken from Islamic textiles, but we also have to
remember that in Spain, we have a long and rich
history of the three faiths. Where you have Islam,
Judaism, and Christianity all commingling with one another. And to some degree we’re seeing that encapsulated in this painting. The tiles on the floor
that are likely derived from Islamic tiles. That brocade that is paying attention to Islamic brocade designs. – [Male Host] So although
the reuse of Islamic motifs was seen as benign within, for example, that brocade or tile
work, this was the height of the reconquest of
Christianity over Islam in Spain. And seeing St. Michael
defeating the devil here, certainly would have been seen in parallel to the Christian triumph
over Islam in Spain. (piano jazz music)

8 thoughts on “St Michael defeats the devil in Renaissance Spain

  1. It seemed like a pretty regular painting at first apart from the depiction of the devil, but now I see why you chose it! There is way more to it, very interesting video.

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