El Greco’s St Martin and the Beggar

November 7th 2020

“St Martin and the Beggar”,  El Greco, c.1597/99, National Gallery of Art, Washington .  
You can see this picture in higher resolution at

“St Martin and the Beggar”, El Greco, 1597-99, National Gallery of Art, Washington.   St Martin of Tours (d. 397)  is shown as a young and handsome knight,  dressed in a suit of armour and, rather strikingly,  mounted on a white stallion.  While St Martin is most often shown as a solid of a horse who encounters a poor man, El Greco has chosen to present him in an idealised but contemporary manner. The suit of armour is contemporary and fashionably inlaid with gold. The hilt of his sword and his strips are also of gold.   The beggar, to whom Martin gives half of his cloak, is tall and slender.  Noticeably, his bare skin shows little evidence of the ravages of poverty, malnutrition, dirt  or disease.   There is a bandage on his right shin to which he points, but there little blood.  The whole scene with the blue sky and the green landscape is harmonious and elegant.  This painting which is almost two meters in height would have towered above the viewer when it was in situ as an altarpiece in the Chapel of San José in the city of Toledo.   The city can be seen in the background below so that perhaps it is intended to convey St Martin’s protection for the populace.  The painting was one of three commissioned for the chapel.  In the centre was St Joseph  with the boy Jesus.  On the right was the a painting of the Madonna and Child with Saints Martina and Agnes.  In fact, when St Martin encountered the beggar, he was a Roman Soldier under Constantine.  When stationed near Amiens in Gaul, one winter’s day, he came upon a beggar shivering from the cold.  He divided his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar.  Tradition says that later Christ appeared to St Martin saying, “What thou hast done for that poor man, thou hast done for me.”  St Martin converted and later became a Bishop.  Devotion to the saint was spread widely and he became an exemplar of charity, but also chastity and piety.  The man who commissioned these paintings for his family chapel, was Martin Ramírez.  He was a bachelor and no doubt aspired to these virtues.  it is evident that he and other members of the family had a strong devotion both to St Martin and the Roman Martyr St Martina who was shown on the opposite wall.  It interests me that St Martin’s suit of armour recalls that worn by the dead Count in El Greco’s  earlier “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” of 1586-88.  In both the suit of armour inlaid with gold is surely intended as a symbol of Christian virtue.   The Memorial of St Martin of Tours is celebrated on Wednesday.  St Martin of Tours, pray for us. 

El Greco’s St Martin and the Beggar

Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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