El Greco painted the soldier on the horse, Martin, and the beggar at his feet to look taller and thinner than normal people. Even the horse is squeezed tighter into the picture. The artist is famous for this elongation, which he intended to show the loftiness of the good deed performed here.
THIS unusual painting was created by the 16th-century Greek artist El Greco. There is an interesting story behind the picture that helps explain its meaning.
El Greco was born on the island of Crete. He went to Venice, Italy, to learn painting in the rich style of Venetians like Titian. But it may be that Venice was too worldly for him and he moved to Spain where the king was known to be very religious. But the king did not appreciate his painting so he moved on to the Spanish city of Toledo, which was more of a religious center, where he was very successful.
They called him ``El Greco,'' which means ``The Greek'' in Spanish. This is not a very polite way of referring to a person but his Greek name, Domenikos Theotocopoulos, was difficult to pronounce. And so we still refer to him as El Greco today. But he always signed his paintings with his full name in Greek script.
You should know that in that era, especially in Spain, the churches and religious orders were among the chief patrons of art, that is, the chief buyers of art. So, it naturally follows that many of those paintings have religious subjects.
The story told here is that of Saint Martin. The real historical Martin was an officer in the army of the Roman emperor in the 4th century, well over 1,000 years before El Greco's time. Martin was stationed in the city of Amiens, now part of France. Riding out of the city gates on a terribly cold winter's morning, Martin met a beggar perishing from the cold. The soldier had only his own cloak and he cut it in half to warm the shivering man.
His good deed brought him a revelation that night which recalled Jesus' words, ``Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'' The beauty and power of the vision caused Martin to turn from soldiering to the service of God and his fellowman.
We value El Greco's paintings for their beauty, their sense of spiritual awareness, and for the unique way in which he painted the people. You'll notice that the handsome white horse is painted in correct proportions although the space in which he stands is so tightly compressed that, of course, a real horse wouldn't fit there.
El Greco paints as his background not 4th-century Amiens, but, to show that such deeds of kindness are timeless, the setting is Toledo, where the artist lived. The soldier, Martin, is dressed, not in Roman armor but in the Spanish armor worn in El Greco's day. His figure looks taller and thinner than a normal person's. El Greco is famous for this elongation, which is also called distortion, of the human figure.
The beggar, as the bearer of the spiritual message, has an extremely upward soaring form painted with flamelike strokes which seem to flicker with light. This is the way the artist was able to paint the invisible things of the spirit with such skill that they become visible in his painting when we know how to look for them.