In the extraordinary series of text-less paintings of Old and New Testament stories that form a part of the St. Alban’s Psalter, there is one scene, and one only that is not from the Bible. In the midst of the Visit of the Magi, the Last Supper, the Death of Jesus, the Harrowing of Hell and other Bible stories, we are startled to find one scene from the life of a 4th Century saint, Martin of Tours.
What explains this singular inclusion of the life of a Christian saint in the other biblical stories illustrated in the St. Alban’s Psalter? Behind this question lies another: Why was St. Martin so popular throughout Europe? There are over 400 Medieval churches in Europe named for this now somewhat obscure saint. Martin was the patron saint of France for centuries, and monastery he founded in the French city of Tours, where he served as bishop lasted from the 4th Century to the French Revolution, a remarkable 1,400 years.
The scene depicted in the St. Alban’s Psalter, taken from the Life of St. Martin, provides a clue as to the saint’s great popularity. While there are many memorable scenes from St. Martin’s life in his biography, the overwhelmingly popular one is the one illustrated in the St. Alban’s Psalter – Martin dividing his Roman officer’s cloak to clothe a naked beggar.
The text of St. Martin’s biography has Martin on foot, on the same plane as the beggar (and the scene takes place in a bitter winter, emphasizing not only the poverty of the beggar but his actual peril). The illustration in the Psalter, however, and every illustration or sculpture of the scene I have ever found puts Martin on a horse, which sharpens the contrast between the status of the two men.
In the illustration, there is another part of the story, illustrated by being place above the actual sharing of the cloak. Martin is asleep, and in a dream he sees Christ wearing the half of the cloak he had given to the beggar. Christ declares to the heavenly onlookers that Martin, who had not yet officially become a Christian, was nevertheless a true follower of his.
St. Martin is included in among the Bible stories in the St. Alban’s Psalter because his acts of charity showed that the spirit of the those who knew Jesus the Christ, or those who were earlier followers of what was then called the Way lived on in the later centuries of Christianity. What Martin did in the 4th Century was one with what the disciples and apostles did around the life of Jesus. Their actions showed that heaven was breaking forth in the midst of cultures and societies that were in opposition to the reality of Christ. With Martin, the viewer is assured that Christ is alive and continuing to convert the world.
Can people see the living Christ in our actions, as people saw Christ in the actions of St. Martin?