Humility And Charity – From Universal Brotherhood To Its Making

As a soldier in Roman France, Martin cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar he encountered. Christ later appeared to Martin in a dream. After this Martin was baptized, and dedicated his life to Christianity.

El Greco’s art is characterized by the flickering luminosity, dematerialization of form, elongated supernatural form, weightless bodies, erratic flashes of light.

We cannot scorn that Beggar, unaccommodated Man, without offence to God.
William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

“To discover god’s image in yourself one has to be naked or a beggar.”

“Beggar stretches out his hand not to ask but to give you kingdom of heaven”

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), “St. Martin and the Beggar” (1597 – 1599)

The semantics in the painting tends to be more synchronic than diachronic, more paradigmatic than syntagmatic, more connotative than narrative. Even when we look at the paintings elaborately, by moving from one detail to another, we return to the overall view to validate our impressions. Although St. Martin at moment of his life represented here by El Greco, still wasn’t recognized as a Saint (this painting depicts an episode in his life which became the turning point for his future dedication to Christian ideals), our intuitive perception of what we see tries to grasp the visual images of the Saint and the Beggar as referring to their psychological essences. In other words, we immediately try to see Martin as a Saint even when he “technically” wasn’t Saint yet. Of course, he already was prone to make charitable gesture towards the beggar – he cut his cloak and gave a half of it to the pauper. But he was baptized only later. Saintliness is not only a matter of behavior – it’s also prayer and the ability to communicate with god (be chosen by him), the intensity of one’s dedication to the Creed, and further deeds.

Besides paying attention to the story which eventually led Martin to sainthood, we look at the painting as an expression of the essence of Martin’s life in its wholeness, as his life’s spiritual result. Even in numerous representations of Christ as a child we are apt to perceive Him in His childhood like that, like an incarnation of His whole life. So, when we look at El Greco’s painting, without knowing yet or not paying attention to the historical narrative of St. Martin’s life we experience a very interesting confusion which El Greco, it seems, intentionally arouses in us, the viewers.

Here lies the semantic possibility for an experimental interpretation of the painting. Let’s forget what it is known about St. Martin. Let’s look at El Greco’s visual images as expressing the “absolute”, not narrative truth about St. Martin and the Beggar. Let’s look at the painting naively, like children look at pictures and drawings.

St. Martin is in armor and with a weapon, while the beggar is naked. The youthful face of Martin is comparable with that of the beggar, although it is more refined, contemplative and sad in comparison with beggar’s innocence. It is his armor and weapon that makes him look “less saintly” than the (unprotecting) nakedness of the beggar. We are cognitively confused – while the beggar is obviously poor (with his gesture of begging) he seems more “saintly” than St. Martin, although Martin also looks “saintly” with his slightly iconic – compassionate facial expression! El Greco’s beggar is shown a little bit like a saint, while Martin a little bit as a beggar (in spite of his armor, lace collar and cuffs). Is, here, El Greco’s intuition (in combination with his mind) suggesting that it is exactly the case, that the beggar is a bit of a saint, while Martin is as pure-hearted and meek as the beggar, that they are similar?

The fact remains that without this beggar Martin would never become a Saint. Without the beggar’s asking for help Martin couldn’t share with him his cloak – couldn’t recognize common humanity between those who possess and those who don’t. The absence of possessions is not belittling the human being’s human status, while the presence of possessions is not adding human value. More, not to try to succeed, not to fight for a higher place in the social hierarchy, not to defend oneself against other people is, according to the painting, a virtue which is worthy of reverie felt by potential St. Martin. Some currents of Christian tradition developed the image of a beggar as a man of god, a saintly human being (“Beggar stretches out his hand not to ask but to give you kingdom of heaven”, “Beggar is a man who has walked with God”, “Man is a beggar before God”, “God’s son royally born had become a beggar”). By exposing to Martin his nakedness and opened palm – human image of God, the beggar marks for Martin a path to sainthood.

According to El Greco’s painting, sainthood more often than not is a certain relation to other human beings, who are then part of it. People for the sake of whom saint acts saintly never “deserve” what they are getting from the saint – recognition, compassion, help, encouragement, hope to believe in god and to believe in humanity. Sainthood in this sense is a belief in giving even to those who “don’t deserve” it. The act of sharing cloth with the naked vagabond is an act of sharing, not judging. El Greco‘s images talk to us about the saintly, not the judging position the modern world has assimilated from the ancient Biblical worldview.

Martin serves the beggar because he feels that beggar deserves his care just by being human, that to be a human being is the highest status one can have while living on earth and this status is guaranteed by the fact of being born because the appearance of a new human being in the world is a sacred matter. He serves the beggar because he feels that the beggar is better than him. In this sense the saint is the one who feels that “not a saint” with his freedom from any possession, is saintlier than he.

El Greco emphasizes the humanistic nature of St. Martin’s sainthood. He is painting the city as a tiny spot in comparison with the sacred mystery that happens between St. Martin and the Beggar – civilization is much less important than humanity.

The two clouds in the left and in the right upper corners of the painting are positioned like Martin’s angel’s wings. Both wings are Martin‘s, but one, on the side of the beggar, is as if protecting him. Can we say that Martin, as if, shares his wings with the hand peddler – gives him one of them?

Can we then say that according to the logic of the images of El Greco’s painting, there are two kinds of sainthood – immanent and transcendent, one is bodily (of the unity of flesh and soul), and another – of the respect and reverie for human body (for the very unity between flesh and soul), one is the beggar’s, the other Martin’s? Or, more exactly, can we say that there are two sacred realities in how we perceive human beings – sacredness and sainthood, being incarnated into human body (the sacredness of being human) – sacredness of being a beggar, and feeling reverie towards this sacredness – position of sainthood (that of Martin)?

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) – 1541 – 1614, Self-Portrait (1595 - 1600)
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) – 1541 – 1614, Self-Portrait (1595 – 1600)