Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What I Learned at AI: St. Martin

A series based on my visits to the Art Institute of Chicago.

Okay, so most of us here in ‘Merica spend November 11 celebrating Veterans Day, which is all well and good because I certainly didn’t want to sacrifice my life running around a jungle or a desert or wherever else our government decided to send our military in this crazy world.  I wasn’t even too fond of the thought of drill sergeants yelling at me or having to get up and do more before 9am than most people do all day.  So for all you who did that… you’re nuts.  But thank you.  Sincerely.

A good chunk of Europe prefers to recognize Armistice Day, originally to celebrate the end of WWI and armies marching around pillaging their homelands.

The Commonwealth instead goes with Remembrance Day, which essentially the same thing with a side of bangers and mash.

However, way back in the 4th century, there was a Roman soldier named Martin of Tours.  According to legend, Marty was out cruising around on his horse one winter, and found a beggar trailside.  Probably with a cardboard sign claiming to just need bus fare to Sicily or something.  Marty sensed a scam since buses hadn’t been invented yet, however the beggar was clothed in rags and damn cold.  Marty did have a fancy cloak that day, drew his sword, cutting his cloak in half and sharing it with the beggar. 

That night, Marty has a dream that it was Jesus who was wearing his half cloak and thanking him.  Or in a more extreme telling, that the cloak was whole again when he awoke in the morning.  Whoa, magic.   The cloak was pretty much one of the best pieces of Christian memorabilia those days, so they assigned a priest to take care of it and gave him the fancy title of cappellanu so that he’d take the responsibility seriously and not lose it or stick in the cellar and forget about it.  Pretty soon they stole the word and called priests in the military cappellani, which eventually became the English word chaplain.  The word also evolved such that small churches are called chapels.  But I digress.

Marty ended up joining a monastery, got promoted to bishop, did a bunch of preaching and other good guy stuff, as well as adding some miracley things to his resume along the way.  He died in 397, but had done enough by then to become a rock star and subsequently a saint. 

He was buried on November 11, which became St. Martin’s Day or The Feast of St. Martin.  The tradition started in France, where he was doing most of his wandering back then, and spread throughout Europe.  You apparently eat some goose and as much other vittles as humanly possible, mostly because there was a period in which this preceded a 40-day fast.  That crazy fasting tradition went away, but the gluttony prevailed. 

However, it seems St. Martin’s Day has largely been shouldered out of the mainstream by the more modern day celebrations honoring our military… so definitely thank a veteran, but feel free to gorge on a goose and some mead.

How did I learn this at the Art Institute?  In 1597 El Greco did a painting called Saint Martin and the Beggar depicting the cloak event that started it all.  It was done for an altar piece for a church, and the original is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, but one of the repetitions that El Greco did is in the Art Institute.  Gallery 206.  Check it out.


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