Saint Martin of Tours: The Iconography

In Tours, France, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of blessed Martin, Bishop and Confessor. His life was so renowned for his miracles that he deservedly raised three persons from the dead. – Roman Martyrology for November 11

For St. Martin of Tours the commonest and most characteristic iconographic type is exemplified by the stained glass at right. Martin is on horseback and uses his sword to divide his cape in two. One half of the cape is for the beggar who stands beside the horse. In the legend the beggar is "all naked," but a completely naked beggar (example) is a rarity in the iconography. Usually he is barefoot, and much of the time his chest is exposed, as at right. But sometimes he will have a short tunic as in this example, where he also has a halo to remind viewers that he is Christ.

This is essentially a narrative image but sometimes the horse is absent and the beggar functions essentially as an attribute (example). The story comes from Sulpicius Severus' 5th-century life of the saint and was part of the Golden Legend's account in the 13th century. The next part of the story is Martin's dream that night, in which he sees Christ wearing the half-cloak and telling the angels, "Martin, yet new in the faith, hath covered me with this vesture" (image).

OTHER NARRATIVE IMAGES

Because St. Martin's fame was so widespread visitors may find other narrative images from the Legend in churches and museums. One popular subject was Martin's renunciation of arms (example). An even more popular one were his resurrection of a young man (example) and the child of a distraught mother example. At his death, both St. Severus and St. Ambrose were granted visions of the angels welcoming him into Heaven with song (example with Severus, example with Ambrose).

OTHER PORTRAIT TYPES

On the strength of the story of Martin's welcome into Heaven, he is often portrayed in the clouds accompanied by angels, as in the third picture at right.

In that picture the saint is also accompanied by a goose. Duchet-Suchaux (232) explains that the goose is traditional fare on St. Martin's day. Bataillard explains that in the early middle ages a fast for Advent began on November 12. Although it later fell into desuetude, anticipatory feasting on November 11 continued to be observed. It went by the name of Martinalia, and commemorative coins featuring the goose were even struck for the celebration. As for why the goose became the characteristic feature of the feast, Bataillard suggests that it was "for the [ancient] Gauls and in the Middle Ages the largest and most esteemed of the birds in the barnyard."

For preaching in Illyria against the Arians Martin was publicly scourged and driven back to Italy (Sulpicius Severus, vi ¶2), so in the 6th century when Catholics took over the basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo from the Arians in Ravenna, they put his portrait at the head of the procession of martyrs in the nave. In succeeding centuries he is sometimes portrayed with one or two fingers pointing up (examples with one finger and with two). This could possibly be a reference to his teachings, against the Arians, regarding the nature of Christ.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-12,27; 2016-10-29; 2016-11-28.

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13th-century stained glass (See description page)


16th-century statuette in Croatia (See description page)


St. Martin with the goose and other attributes (See description page)

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DATES

  • Feast day: November 11
  • Lived from 316 to 397

HAGIOGRAPHY

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