Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

November 11, 2011

The other 11/11/11

In addition to being Veterans Day in the U.S., and Armistice or Remembrance Day elsewhere, November 11 is St. Martin’s Day or Martinmas, which takes its name from St. Martin of Tours.

Martin was born in 316 in modern-day Hungary. He served as a cavalry soldier in the Roman army and was stationed in modern-day Amiens, France, when he had a life-changing encounter with a scantily-clad beggar. On impulse, Martin cut his cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, he had a dream in which Jesus was wearing the half-cloak. Martin was baptized soon after, but remained in the army for two more years. In 336, before a battle with the Gauls, he came to the conclusion that his faith prohibited him from fighting, leading to his being jailed as a coward. Nonetheless, he was eventually released from imprisonment and from military service. (Martin’s conversion experiences have resulted in him being claimed as a patron saint by both soldiers and conscientious objectors, among others.) Martin went on to become the bishop of Tours in France. He was among the first non-martyrs to be venerated as a saint, and after his death on November 8, 397, his shrines became major pilgrimage destinations. The earliest account of his life is recorded by Sulpicius Severus, who knew Martin personally.

This date caught my eye this year in particular because one of the works in MOCRA’s exhibition Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion has as its subject Martin’s act of generosity toward that mysterious beggar.

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack, 1985

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack, 1985

The work quotes from the well-known painting by El Greco (now found in the National Gallery of Art).

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, c. 1597

El Greco, St. Martin and the Beggar, c. 1597

A few details about Kellard’s piece suggest that he had some keen insight into the deeper meaning of this episode. For instance, El Greco portrayed Martin in the armor of a contemporary 16th-century Spanish soldier. The armor is decorated with gold filigree, and (as best as I can make out from reproductions) seems to incorporate the Cross of St. James, associated with the Spanish Order of Santiago: a red cross that terminates in a sword. It is a symbol born out of warfare and was used extensively during the Crusades.

But in Kellard’s work, these decorations are transformed into hearts surmounted by crosses, a variant on the Sacred Heart, which represents the unconditional love and compassion of Christ toward humankind. It suggests here the impulsive compassion and sense of identification Martin experienced toward the shivering man before him. The heart motif is repeated on the panel the runs along the bottom of the work. What’s not apparent from the frontal view above is much clearer from the side.

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack (detail), 1985.

Adrian Kellard, St. Martin of Tours coat rack (detail), 1985.

Yes, those are coat hooks. This is a functional work of art that served as the coat rack in Kellard’s apartment. Beyond its utilitarian purpose, this is a coat rack that speaks of hospitality and open-heartedness.

An underlying theme of the exhibition is the movement toward greater compassion. It’s something that Kellard seems to have experienced in his own life, particularly following his AIDS diagnosis. His later artworks suggest that, rather than collapsing into despair, self-pity, or anger at God, his spirit instead seems to have blossomed outward. Like Martin, Kellard recognizes Christ in suffering humanity, but unlike Martin he could see the beggar every time he looked in the mirror. Kellard experienced alienation, dismissal, discrimination, and fearful responses to his disease firsthand. His art certainly expresses that pain, and the justifiable anger he felt at times. But the works aren’t mired in the pain or the anger; rather, they call viewers to recognize their own frailties in the suffering of others, no matter how foreign or unsettling those others might be.


There is a risk in including the word “compassion” in an exhibition title. It’s easy enough to deploy the word, difficult to articulate what it means, and more challenging yet to embody in one’s life. I have been hearing for a while about the Charter for Compassion movement initiated by author Karen Armstrong, and have begun exploring its website. Among the resources are six brief talks on compassion from the perspectives of several faith traditions.

Of the talks I’ve listened to so far, a common observation is that compassion begins when we can recognize ourselves in others; compassion grows as our capacity for empathy deepens. For Christians, the touchstone might be the parable of the final judgment in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, with its admonition that “whatever you did for one of these least ones, you did for me.” Among the talks on the Charter for Compassion website, Robert Wright employs both evolutionary biology and game theory to give some rational basis for compassion, an interesting counterpoint to the religious and moral points of departure in the other talks. I’m particularly taken by Tenzin Robert Thurman’s meditation exercise for “expanding our circle of compassion.”

As we remember Martin of Tours, the many veterans who have served their country, and the fragile but perennial hope for peace in our times, may we all find our circles of compassion growing in diameter, our hearts opening a bit more each day.

–David Brinker, Assistant Director

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