The painting illustrates the legend of Martin of Tours, a fourth century Christian saint that used a military sword to cut half of his cloak and gave it to a beggar in the middle of winter. He was conscripted as a solider in the Roman army. Unable to reconcile his faith with his duties as a soldier, he was a conscientious objector and was charged with cowardice for refusing to fight. Martin became a monk and hermit in present-day Tours and was eventually named bishop of Tours.
As a solider station in Gaul, he met a beggar at the gates of Amiens. The man was barely clothed, so Martin cut his military cloak in half. He shared part of it with the man. Later that night, he had a vision of Jesus wearing the half of the cloak he provided to the beggar. Another version of the cloak’s legend is that Martin awoke to see the garment restored. Martin’s half of the cloak became a religious relic used by Merovingian kings of the Franks near Tours. In the Middle Ages, it was carried by into battle as it was seen to have miraculous qualities. The cloak was kept as part of the royal treasuring in 679 at a villa that eventually came under the control of the Saint-Denis monks in 798 or 799.
El Greco's Saint Martin and the Beggar was painted between 1597 and 1599. It was originally made for the Capilla de San José, a chapel in Toledo. It is part of the National Gallery of Art’s collection in Washington, DC. The original oil painting measures 193.5 by 103 centimetres, or 76.2 by 40.6 inches. A smaller version of the painting at the Art Institute of Chicago was also created by El Greco.
In the painting, Saint Martin is clothed as a knight or nobleman in gold amour and a ruff that was more typical of dress in Toledo during El Greco's lifetime. He is riding a white Arabian horse with its front right leg raised. The purity of the steed contrasts with the ominous sky and background surrounding the painting’s subjects. Martin is preparing to cut his green cloak to share with the beggar, who is standing nude at the left side of the horse. The act of cutting the cloak is almost portrayed as a ritual sacrifice from one person to another, conveying an image of love Toledo is shown in the distance with Alcántara bridge and the Tagus river visible.
Like other works by El Greco, Saint Martin and the Beggar breaks from Renaissance concepts of harmony and balance. Rather than embracing perfect proportions, it depicts elongated figures in line with the Mannerism style. While the beggar is distorted, Saint Martin has relatively natural proportions. This might suggest the beggar is not from this world and perhaps harkens back to the original legend of the saint’s vision of Jesus. Beyond Saint Martin and the Beggar, many of El Greco's works features contorted and elongated figures. His paintings and sculptures also regularly illustrated dramatic and expressive scenes.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, also know as El Greco or The Greek, was born in Crete in 1541. The artists trained within the Post-Byzantine school when the Greek island was part of the Republic of Venice and where the style thrived. When El Greco was 26, he moved to Venice in the footsteps of many other Greek artists at the time. In 1577, he moved in Toledo where he spent the remainder of his life. El Greco thrived in the Spanish city and produced he most recognised work during his time in Toledo.
He also received major commissions, although most contemporaries criticised El Greco’s work since it did not respect popular trends of the Renaissance. El Greco died in 1614 and has been recognised as an influential precursor to later art movements, particularly Expressionism and Cubism. Much of his work only gained respect after his death, particularly during the twentieth century. El Greco and his art influenced the work of several twentieth century artist, including Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and many others.