St. Martin was born during the reign of the Emperor Constantine the Great, and was the son of a Roman soldier. He himself entered the army at an early age, and was sent into Gaul with a regiment of cavalry. Among his comrades he was loved for his mildness of temper and his generosity.

It happened that he was stationed in the city of Amiens, during a winter of unusual severity. There was great suffering among the poor, and many perished with cold and hunger. St. Martin was riding one day through the city gate, when he passed a naked beggar shivering on the pavement. Immediately he drew rein, and spoke pityingly to the poor creature. The young soldier was wearing over his coat of mail a long mantle. Slipping this garment from his shoulders he divided it with his sword, giving half to the beggar. That same night, as he slept, he had a vision of Jesus clad in the portion of his mantle. And Jesus, turning to the angels who accompanied him, said, "My servant Martin hath done this."

After a time St. Martin left the army, to devote himself wholly to a religious life. He became the Bishop of Tours, and was noted for his deeds of mercy and charity. It was always his delight to clothe the poor. Once while he was standing at the altar of the cathedral, he turned and threw his priestly garment over a beggar, with the same impulsive generosity which had led him to divide his military cloak. He was zealous also in uprooting all forms of heathenism, and cast down many temples of idols.

He lived to a good old age, and died among the scenes of his labors. The legend relates that as he lay in his last illness he prayed his brethren to move him where he might see more of heaven than of earth. His face shone as it had been glorified, and the voices of angels were heard singing.[18] In Tours from that day to this his memory is piously cherished. Every child in the street loves to tell the story of the gallant soldier who shared his cloak with the beggar.

[18] The life of St. Martin is related with much circumstance in the Golden Legend. See Caxton's translation in the Temple Classics Edition, vol. vi., p. 142. Mrs. Jameson gives a brief account of the same inSacred and Legendary Art, p. 705.

This is the story in our picture. St. Martin rides forward on a splendid white charger, accompanied by other horsemen. At the corner of the gateway two beggars await them. The older one hobbles forward on his knees, supported by crutches. Though he is a miserable object, he is fairly protected from the cold by a long garment. His companion is perfectly naked, a huge muscular fellow seated on some straw. He is just turning about to make way for the cavalcade, when the knight draws rein.

Church of Saventhem

The horse arches his neck proudly and stamps impatient at the delay. The rider on St. Martin's right looks across with surprise. But the young knight serenely proceeds in his generous act. Already his cloak has slipped from his figure and hangs only from his left shoulder. Grasping it with his left hand half way down its length, he raises his sword to sunder it at this place.

The lower end has fallen across the beggar's right arm. At its warm touch, the man, overwhelmed with gratitude, abashed perhaps by the goodness of his benefactor, hides his face with his upraised left arm. It is as if the knightly purity of the compassionate face above him has revealed the man to himself in his loathsome degradation.

The young soldier is clad in a tunic of mail which sets off to perfect advantage the lithe figure. Over his short curls is worn a jaunty cap with a long feather; he is a veritable fairy prince. The boyish face accords well with the legend, which relates that he was only a youth when the incident occurred. It is said that no one ever saw St. Martin angry, or sad, or gay; he was always sweet, and serious, and serene. This, too, is precisely as we see him in the picture. The good deed done, we may fancy the young cavalier riding on his way, as if nothing had happened.

The beautiful horse of the picture is one which appears in many of Van Dyck's works. There is a tradition that the original was Rubens's gift to the painter when he set out for Italy. Van Dyck has built his picture on a diagonal plan, such as the older painter Rubens often used. The main line of the composition runs from the head of the man in the upper left corner, to the beggar in the lower right corner. The lifted sword and the falling mantle form the connecting lines across the canvas.

The feast of St. Martin is celebrated on the eleventh of November, in that short season of warm weather which brightens the autumn. It is for this that the French call the week "St. Martin's little summer." Every year, at this time, pious pilgrims visit the quiet cells, in the limestone cliff by the riverside, where the good bishop used to retire for prayer.