Martín y muchos pobres: Grotesque Versions of the Charity of St Martin in the Bosch and Bruegel Schools

Martín y muchos pobres: Grotesque Versions of the Charity of St Martin in the Bosch and Bruegel Schools

Walsh, Martin W.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 14 (1997)


The inventory of the Spanish monarch Philip II’s art works, drawn up after his death in 1598, mentions three paintings attributed to Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1469-1516) having to do with St Martin of Tours. One is labeled Sanct Martín y muchos pobres and a second, a grisaille and probably only another version of the same, Sanct Martin con muchos pobres y desparates. The third Bosch is more fully described by Vasari as S. Martino con una barca piena di diavoli in bizarrissime forme. None of these paintings survive, but much of their design and content passed into a tapestry and an engraving of the mid-sixteenth century which have been loosely attributed to the “School of Bosch.” Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569), that novus Hieronymus Boschius, also created a Martinian composition, “The Wine of St Martin,” a substantial fragment of which survives together with a derived engraving and two versions of the theme by Bruegel follower Pieter Balten (ca. 1525-ca. 1598). These St Martin subjects of the Bosch-Bruegel schools can be largely reconstructed and considered as a related group since all reflect contemporary secular celebration of the feast of Martinmas (11 November). I have elsewhere treated the subject of this Martinmas bacchanal, very common in the Low Countries and German-speaking areas, as a kind of prelude to the Yuletide and Carnival seasons. Meat from the autumnal slaughter and the new-wine of the season were prominent features of this last harvest celebration and first winter feast. The compositions deserve attention as well for the fact that they represent the most extreme appropriations of a very familiar icon of Western art, the “Charity of St Martin,” that image of the young cavalier severing his cloak to share it with a naked, shivering beggar. An ironic tension between the Charity of St Martin and the excessive festival bearing his name seems to be the central “message” of these enigmatic compositions.

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