The Charity of Saint Martin: a Painting by Mr. James Langley

The following reflection was offered by Mr. James Langley, the artist responsible for the stunning 9X6 foot painting that now stands above our mantle in Theotokos Hall. Mr. Langley is the father of Raphael Langley, class of ’21.

Reflection on a painting, by James Langley

My image of the 4th century saint Martin of Tours and the Beggar was commissioned
for a special location above the hearth in Theotokos Hall at St. Martin’s Academy in Fort
Scott, Kansas. My gracious client simply specified the subject and required that it be
inspirational to the students at the school; no other stipulations were made and so the
work progressed quickly and without conflict caused by a client’s overactive imagination
of the way the subject ought to be portrayed. This is a brief summary of some of the
research, concepts and techniques that have shaped the painting that was executed in
oil on heavyweight Belgian linen canvas measuring: 274 cm x 198 cm / 108 in x78 in.
The canvas was stretched on or around April 10 and delivered to the Academy on May
26 2021.

In researching the subject of the painting I was immediately interested to learn that
Martin is the Patron Saint of the Penniless. Then I discovered he is the patron saint of
France. How do you paint someone who converts an entire nation to Christ? Martin of
Tours is the first great father and leader of western monasticism. He is revered also as
the patron saint of horses, equestrians and calvary, beggars and geese, the destitute and
the nobility, winemakers and alcoholics, hoteliers and the homeless, tailors and those
who are threadbare.

St Martin is also the patron saint of soldiers, veterans and conscientious objectors. St.
Martin’s burial on November 11 has been celebrated as a Feast Day Long before
Armistice Day and Veterans Day also on November 11 marked the end of the first world
war. In particular he is the patron saint of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps and of the US
Army Quartermaster Regiment. In fact the ministry of military chaplains flows directly
from St Martin of Tours. So powerful was the witness of his extended life that after his
death his relics were associated with a continuation of the miraculous events that
accompanied his life. The remainder of his military cape was housed in a temporary
reliquary designated as the Capella (which eventually became the chapel). The clergy
who carried it into Battle with the Frankish Kings were designated as Cappellani,
Chapelains, Chaplains. It is likely that Charles Martel (The Hammer) was accompanied
by Cappellani and the Capella when he defeated the Muslin invaders advancing on the
Abbey of St Martin at the Battle of Tours 10 October 732. Charles was also aware that if
he lost the battle there would be no force to stop the Islamic takeover of the whole of

Among the hundreds of icons and images of the saint including masterworks by El
Greco and Anthony VanDyck, my favorite paintings of Martin are in the Cappella di San
Martino. This chapel in the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi features a cycle of
frescoes and stained glass portraying the life of the saint. These larger than life figures
painted directly onto the walls towering overhead by artist Simone Martini include one
astonishing mural of St. Martin and the Beggar that the artist designed using the power
of the silhouette so that one can see it from afar through the portal of the chapel. In a
similar way I positioned my rider turning his horse against the rich, deeply saturated
lapis lazuli sky. I also echoed this Sienese artist of the trecento in his use of the terra
rosa pigment for the city gate towering over the beggar and in the semi transparent
layering of color seen in Martin’s glowing cloak. I carefully studied Martini’s
compositional arrangement and visual pathways that help to establish the emotional connection
between horse, rider and beggar.

These influences from the 14th century were consolidated and advanced by my
encounter with a different masterwork from the late 16th century by the sculptor Pietro
Bernini (the father of Gian Lorenzo and Luigi who both became sculptor – architects). In
marble, Pietro Bernini carved in high relief an altarpiece featuring St. Martin and the
Beggar for the Certosa di San Martino in Naples, Italy (the most visible landmark of the
city situated atop the promontory that commands the Gulf). Bernini’s composition
remarkably echoes Simone Martini in several ways and yet is powerfully original, tactile
and three dimensional.

I find it fascinating that when the attribute of “originality” is used as a measure of
artistic achievement, artists will tend to hide their sources and influences and so
diminish the importance of having a conversation with the past. It is therefore all the
more astonishing when one discovers that the artists who are esteemed for their creative
genius as originators are upon closer inspection actually great students of history who
have discreetly sustained a deep ongoing respect and emulation of the ancient masters.
Drawing and painting techniques are also something best mastered in the context of the
artist workshop tradition. For this painting I intentionally used the sculptor’s rake to
model solid tangible form so essential to my purpose to incarnate the corporal presence
of the figures in paint. The rake also enabled me to invent a visual analog of the woven
texture of fabric to underscore the importance of Martins capella. My preparatory
drawings for the painting were made not only from these masterworks but also from the
versatile and imaginative professional life-drawing model: Andrea Morani whom I
hired to assume the positions of both Saint Martin and the Beggar. The inspiration of
Andrea’s work was essential to the success of my painting by enabling me to capture
more of the vitality and physicality of the figures.

A work of art cannot be fully understood or appreciated as intended when merely
described in words or seen only in a photographic reproduction. Similar to the
experience of hearing live music, there is something irreducible about the materiality of
paint and the tangible interaction of color, shape and form on a physical scale that
engages a viewer bodily and emotionally in a way that can not pass fully into another
medium. I suppose this may also explain the longstanding human instinct to make
pictures which predate the fossil record of any written language.
Nevertheless the written word also has an important influence on this painting
especially as found in the historical chronicle of Sulpicius Severus, who knew Saint
Martin of Tours personally and wrote his biography. He was renowned as an eloquent
lawyer and his knowledge of Roman law is reflected in parts of his writings. He was a
chief authority for contemporary Gallo-Roman history and is considered a most graceful writer imbued with excellent educational advantages and the learning and culture of his time.
The most famous instance of Martin’s charity was reported by Sulpicius: “[I]n the
middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary so that
the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city
of Amiens a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to
have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when
Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity,
was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the
cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for
similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his
cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed
himself with the remainder.”

The following night, Martin had a vision in which Christ appeared arrayed in that part
of his cloak Martin had given to the beggar. Jesus addressing a company of saints and
angels said, “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”
Martin’s half of the cape was preserved and treasured as a relic which was taken into
battle and used by kings and generals to authenticate oaths and treaties, and eventually
inspired the designation of chaplains and chapels.

A careful reader will notice that “He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad,
for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes.” My
painting, however, shows Martin fully clothed. This discrepancy underlines a final
important point on the concept of verisimilitude. It is frequently assumed that the role
of a painting is similar to that of a documentary photograph in rendering a quasi
scientific record of every detail. Obviously if that were the case we would simply use
cameras and not paint brushes or sculpture rakes to reconstruct an event. A painting
enables one to see the meaning of the whole event without getting lost in the descriptive

Painters use the term perspective to signify the ability to see the true form (or
verisimilitude) of things as illuminated in depth. It is misleading to think of perspective
as merely a technique to create an illusion and it is a further mistake to think of the
purpose of visual art as simply to describe the anecdotal appearance of objects.
Perspective is not a trick of the light or a slight of hand but rather about opening a
window in the mind’s eye. Having true perspective is about paying attention to the
forms of things such that one can both see and understand their true place in relation to
others and so to grasp their fullest significance and meaning. For example, Saint Martin
himself demonstrates true perspective in seeing deeply into nature by restoring human
dignity to the naked shivering beggar. His perspective is further deepened when the
beggar reveals himself as Jesus Christ.

In summary, the most striking aspect of this painting to me are the compositional
dynamics coupled with the tangible corporeality and vibrancy of form and color. So that
in looking at the painting our attention is powerfully arrested and drawn upward until
just like the beggar we lock eyes with the saint who at least for one sustained moment
has our full undivided attention and who for that moment becomes fully present to us.
As an unconscious sympathy recognizing kinship with the beggar we realize our frailty
and need of mercy and spontaneously call upon the saint while simultaneously
accepting the enveloping protection of his cape that covers our deficiencies, redeems the
defaced image of God and elevates us to resemble Christ himself. In this way by aligning
ourselves with the perspectives in the painting we begin to see beneath the surface
appearances and gain deeper insight to finally understand the real meaning of success
and failure, of power and weakness, of riches and want, of freedom and redemption.