In the Year of Our Lord 1474 Isabella of Trastámara was crowned Queen of Segovia.

Four years later Pope Sixtus IV, who commissioned the decoration of the Sistine Chapel to a number of Florentine painters (Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, among others) signed a bull authorising the Kingdom of Castile to nominate inquisitors to put an end to the “Jewish problem”, in exactly the same style as the SS and the Gestapo.

Bartolomé Bermejo, Pietat Desplà, 1490. Catedral de Barcelona.

It was not the first time that the Jews had been persecuted, whether they were converts or not, in the Kingdoms of Europe and Spain. In fact, the Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1394.

In 1348 they were blamed for the arrival of the Black Death which devastated the population of Europe. In 1391 there were major revolts in Seville, Cordoba and Toledo, and they even reached Barcelona with a fierce attack on the Jewish quarter, the Call.

A century later they would also be expelled from Spain, once Isabella and Ferdinand had conquered Granada. Already, in 1476 in the Court held at Madrigal de las Altas Torres (a town of a thousand inhabitant in Avila where Isabella “the Catholic” had been born) they were prohibited from wearing sumptuous fabrics and were ordered to sew a bright red badge onto their right shoulder so that they could be identified, in exactly the same style as the SS and the Gestapo.

Bartolomé Bermejo, Flagelació de Santa Engràcia, c. 1474-1477. Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

Moving towards 1480 and the persecution became unbearable. The Jews were confined to the Calls which became a kind of ghetto. Almost five hundred years later the same thing happened in the territories of the Third Reich.

One of the converts who decided to make his getaway and escape anti-Semitic persecution was a painter form the Flemish school: Bartolomé Cárdena, better known as Bermejo, the name of the colour of the badge but also the word for red-head, and probably from Cordoba as figures on the work Mercy Desplà from 1490.

Bermejo (possibly still wearing the red badge on his shoulder) left an Andalusia that had been conquered by the Castilian troops, to travel to Aragon, where it would seem that the ills blown by the winds were not so bad.

Bartolomé Bermejo, Descens de Crist al Limb, c. 1475. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.

Gradually he moved closer to Barcelona. Before his arrival he painted in Valencia, Daroca and Saragossa where some of the first works in Spain showing signs of a primitive Flemish influence remain. And in 1486 we find him in Barcelona where he competed unsuccessfully against Jaume Huguet for the commission of the organ doors of the Santa Maria del Mar basilica.

One of his most emblematic works, demonstrating his refined mastery of northern oil techniques, as the above mentioned Mercy Desplà, commissioned by the archdeacon of Barcelona Cathedral, Lluís Desplà i d’Oms, who years later from 1506 to 1509 was President of the Government of Catalonia. Bermejo must have been warmly welcomed by Desplà, who would later oppose the Inquisition in Barcelona, albeit unsuccessfully.

Bartolomé Bermejo, Tríptic de la mare de Déu de Montserrat, c. 1483-1484. Catedrale de Nostra Signora Assunta, Aula Capitolare, Acqui Terme (Alessandria).

In Catalonia it was difficult for the Inquisition to become established in its mission to persecute the Jews who continued to practice their religion, but in 1483 Tomás de Torquemada, confessor of the Catholic Monarchs, was made Grand Inquisitor for the Crowns of Castile and Aragon and the Inquisition was established in Valencia and Saragossa (1484), Barcelona (1486), Mallorca (1488), Sicily (1487) and Sardinia (1492).

Was a perfectionist, with erudite knowledge of colour, forms and nature.

Finally, in 1492, between 80,000 and 200,000 Jews were expelled from the peninsula. Around 100,000 came from Castile and about 10,000 from Aragon, ten times fewer.  “Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando”, was the royal motto and roughly translates as “the worth of one is the same as the other” Well, maybe not exactly the “same”.

Bartolomé Bermejo was a perfectionist, with erudite knowledge of colour, forms and nature. He was a Renaissance man, even though that concept did not reach the peninsula until later on. In Mercy Desplà he painted a theme of fauna and flora: over seventy animal and plant species are included in this Catalan Gothic work, which can be seen in the excellent and carefully considered exhibition at the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC) on loan from the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Bermejo lived in Aragonese lands until his death in around 1500.

The exhibition Bermejo. The 15th century rebel genius can be visited at the MNAC, in Barcelona, until 19 May.