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Artist unknown. St. Martin and the Beggar. Hungarian

Today is Veterans Day. It is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, patron of soldiers.

Martin is my patron saint as well. Back in second grade, when we were asked to pick a saint’s name for Confirmation, I chose Martin. There followed a brief flurry of canonical concern. Was it suitable for a girl to take a male saint’s name? Could she do it? Should she?

I was not trying to create a nuisance. It was only that I took seriously the purpose of this new name. At Confirmation, I would become the namesake of a saint in whom I might recognize some part of myself, someone who might—just—find some affinity with me, too. The sacrament would confer on us a sacred bond, never to be severed.

Seven-year-olds take such pledges with great seriousness.

St Martin of Tours3

But which saint? There were so many, all so dreary with their hands clasped and eyes raised to heaven. Like cows, I thought. Then there were ones with their necks all gashed and bloody, bodies pinned to a tree by arrows, or toasted like grilled cheese. Poor Barbara, shut up in a tower like Rapunzel, only to wind up with her head cut off. Agnes with her breasts on a plate? No thank you. I had no taste for a bad end. Besides, I was not raised to have much hope of sainthood.

800px-Perpetua,_Felicitas,_Revocatus,_Saturninus_and_Secundulus_(Menologion_of_Basil_II)

Anonymous. Martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, Revocatus, Saturninus and Secondulus (c. 985).

But St. Martin! And the horse, of course! Tours must be like the Bronx, I decided. There were horses in Pelham Bay Park. In every picture I found he looked dynamic, a bold cavalry man. He was agile, able to bolt—gallop away—if he had to. An admirable advantage. The cape was the best part. He did not just pull it off and hand over the whole thing. Nothing so giddy, so . . . Franciscan. (At seven, I could not fathom Martin as a precursor to Francis of Assisi.) No, Martin was cagey. He only cut his cloak in half. Some for me; some for Thee. Here was a saint I might have a chance with.

So Martin it was.

A glad choice. My childhood misreading of Martin’s storied act turned out to have been a happy accident. Martin has accompanied me kindly. My understanding of generosity—caritas—has heightened since then. The nature of humility, too, has shown its deeper colors. At the same time, in the trenches of the lived life, when to dash, advance or hang fire have their urgency. A bold saint, unmartyred and mindful of military discipline, is high company in the long, hard, mine-studded campaign that makes conscripts of each of us.

giotto martin

Simone Martini. St. Martin Shares his Cloak with the Beggar (c. 1317-20). Montefiore Chapel, Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi.

• • • • •

To me, the loveliest, most transporting of all images of Martin is Simone Martini’s. My delight in Simone (c. 1284-1344) exceeds even my pleasure in—reverence for—the achievements of Giotto. Simone’s play of styles and emotional range lends a unique and compelling force to the Christian narrative.

Assisi’s Montefiore Chapel was commissioned during a cleft in the Franciscan order between the Spiritualists and the Conventuals. The Spiritualists emphasized Christ’s poverty; consequently, they disdained spending funds on buildings and art works. The Conventuals, by then among the wealthiest bodies in Europe, built the double church at Assisi, where St. Francis lay buried, as sign and symbol of their power.

Paul Hill, in The Light of Early Italian Painting, describes the chapel:

To step up from the darkness of the Lower Church at Assisi, into Simone’s Montefiore Chapel, is to enter an altogether separate world. Elaborate Gothic tracery, coral-and-cream inlaid marble, and stained glass windows all conspire with the painted narrative to create, in Borsook’s phrase, ‘a shimmering casket.’ . . . [At Assisi] he designed an ensemble whose aesthetic could hardly be more opposed to the simplicity and ‘poverty’ of the Life of St. Francis upstairs.

At about the time Simone was at work in Assisi, Pope John XXII issued a series of pronouncements, from Avignon, contesting the poverty of Christ. That was one way to reconcile expensive commissions and aesthetic consciousness with witness to a Nazarene tekton.

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