Saint Martin and the Beggar by El Greco
“Saint Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco depicts the best-known story on the life of the Christian Saint Martin of Tours. He was in the Roman cavalry, who used his sword to cut his cloak in two, to give half to a beggar who was clad only in rags in the depth of winter.
Saint Martin of Tours (336 – 397) was the third bishop of Tours after he had served in the Roman cavalry in Gaul and converted to Christianity at a young age. This smaller version by El Greco is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago; a larger version is in the collection of The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
The worship of Martin was popular in the Middle Ages, especially in France, where many place names commemorate Martin. St. Martin’s popularity in France can also be attributed to his adoption by successive royal houses of France. Martin was most generally portrayed on horseback, dividing his cloak with the beggar.
From the 4th century to the late Middle Ages, much of Western Europe engaged in a period of fasting beginning on the day after St. Martin’s Day, November 11. This fast period lasted 40 days, and was, therefore, called “the forty days of St. Martin.” At St. Martin’s eve and on the feast day, people ate and drank very heartily for the last time before they started to fast. This fasting time was later called “Advent” by the Church and was considered a time for spiritual preparation for Christmas.
Martin of Tours
Martin was born in AD 316 or 336 in what is now, Hungary, to a father who was a senior officer or tribune in the Imperial Horse Guard. Martin grew up in northern Italy, As the son of a veteran officer, Martin at fifteen was required to join the Roman cavalry.
The most famous legend concerning Martin of Tours was that he had once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snowstorm. That night, he dreamt of Jesus, wearing the half-cloak and saying to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptized; he has clothed me.” After being released from military service, Martin went to what is now the city of Tours and became a Christian disciple.
Following many trials of courage and faith, in 371AD, Martin was acclaimed bishop of Tours, where his status and reputation continued to grow and increase. Many stories circulated attesting to Martin’s Christian acts and a cult developed around him after his death. His shrine in Tours, in the center-west of France, became a famous stopping-point for pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, widely known as El Greco, Spanish for “The Greek,” was a painter, sculptor, and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. The artist frequently signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, “Cretan”). He is best known for elongated figures and for marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.
El Greco was born in Crete, which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice and the center of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master Byzantine art before traveling to Venice to work; then he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.
El Greco’s style was met with puzzlement by his 16th-century contemporaries. However, he found greater appreciation in modern times and is today regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers, and he is considered, as an artist, so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.
St. Martin’s Day
Saint Martin’s day, also known as the Feast of Saint Martin, as well as Old Halloween, is celebrated on November 11 each year. This is the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed in Europe and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle. Historically, hiring fairs were held where farm laborers would seek new posts.
St. Martin was known as a friend of the children and patron of the poor. This holiday originated in France, then spread to the Low Countries, the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. It celebrates the end of the agrarian year and the end of the harvest.
In some countries, Martinmas celebrations begin at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of this eleventh day of the eleventh month, that is, at 11:11 am on November 11. Bonfires are built, and children carry lanterns in the streets after dark, singing songs for which they are rewarded with candy.
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Saint Martin and the Beggar
- Title: Saint Martin and the Beggar
- Artist: El Greco
- Year: 1597-1600
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Dimensions: Height: 110 cm (43.3 ″); Width: 63 cm (24.8 ″)
- Museum: Art Institute of Chicago
- Name: El Greco – “The Greek”
- Greek: Doménikos Theotokópoulos
- Birth: 1541 – Heraklion, Crete
- Died: 1614 (aged 73) – Toledo, Spain
- Nationality: Greek
- Movement: Mannerism
- Notable works:
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“Hitherto, I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God.”
– Saint Martin of Tours
Photo Credit: El Greco [Public domain]