If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

St Michael defeats the devil in Renaissance Spain

Master of Belmonte, St Michael Defeating the Devil, 1450-1500, oil and tempera on wood (The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(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)