A few months ago, I asked my readers if they might be interested in some art-related posts. The answer was a resounding YES, so I’ll try to make my arts musing a recurring feature of this blog. Such posts won’t appear with any regularity – I don’t want to tie myself to a schedule – but only when a particular idea or a piece of art tickles my fancy.
The legend of St. Martin’s cloak attracted multiple artistic interpretations. Several European cities erected statues of St. Martin. Senica in Slovakia even chose the guy for their coat of arms.
There are also many paintings depicting St. Martin’s best known charity case. Anthony van Dyck, Louis Anselme Longa, Jacob van Oost and several others painted the saintly soldier sharing his cloak with a beggar. El Greco’s masterpiece is one of the most famous.
So who was St. Martin and what did he do to deserve such reverence?
According to Wikipedia, St. Martin (316–397), Bishop of Tours, was one of the most recognizable Christian saints, sometimes venerated as a military saint. As a young man, he served in the Roman cavalry. He discovered Christianity early in life and eventually decided that his Christian views are incompatible with a soldier’s sword. He got out of the army, became a monk and, after a while, a bishop. All his post-military endeavors were dedicated to spreading Christianity, establishing monasteries all over France, and destroying pagan temples with unrivaled enthusiasm. He also cut down the sacred trees, usually centuries old, that were often associated with the pagan beliefs and grew beside the temples.
His legend that’s inspired so many marvelous pieces of art states that when he was a young soldier, he rode to the gates of Amiens and encountered an almost naked beggar. It was winter. Gripped by his Christian compassion, he cut his military cloak in half to share with the beggar.
Later, the part he kept for himself became a renown relic upon which military oaths were sworn. At one point, kings carried it into battle. A priest tending the cloak in its reliquary was called a cappellanu. Ultimately, the name became attached to all priests serving in the military: cappellani. The English word chaplain is derived from that root. A similar linguistic development also led to the word chapel – a small church.
I wonder: why did Martin cut his cloak in half? Why didn’t he give the entire cloak to the poor man? After all, he himself was much richer. He had a secure position in the army, a horse, and his weapons. Probably some money too. He should’ve been able to afford another cloak for himself. And what is half a cloak anyway?
I think a cloak is something like a blanket, a piece of cloth about 1.5 or 2 m long and as wide. A half would be at most one meter wide but twice longer. I suppose it could’ve kept a beggar from freezing to death but only just. And it wouldn’t be very useful for a cavalryman always on the move. So why withhold the other half? To make a relic of? How did the story become known anyway? Did he brag of his ‘generosity’? I can’t see any saintliness in the act and can’t understand why it was so lauded by both artists and church historians. But the paintings are surely wonderful.