Jan 062008
 

I think that (the painting hangs in the National Gallery of Art, Washington) the saturnine mood displayed by the faces seeps into the bodies, even that of the animal. The elongated, sinewy physique of the beggar appears to be melting, flowing downwards, as if unable to resist the gloomy sentimentality of the scene. The horse’s self conscious and inward gaze becomes the third angle of the imaginary triangle that connects the three pairs of eyes; its unsure, timid stamping accords with the general mood of a tense and meaningful moment. The artist employs an interesting, perhaps slightly ironic, compositional trick by placing the animal’s hind legs near the beggars elegant lower limbs (both are bony). This irony may be the only point of emotional rest in this painting, and it is not accidentally located at the lower part of the canvas, implying the hierarchy of comedy and more serious modes of psychic experience, manifested by those faces.

 

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St. Martin and the Beggar
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Though it is obviously the physical weight and the shape of the armor that impedes the saint in his task, a broader symbolic interpretation suggests itself: the rich, secular and earthly (the ore used for making the plates literally being extracted from the ground) garments interfere with one’s progression towards holiness, as, for instance, was exemplified by St. Francis. Correspondingly, the protagonist is indeed depicted in the process of shedding his garb, cutting off a part of his robe in order to give it away to the naked beggar. The violence of the act clashes with the serene humility of the actors, generating electrifying atmosphere — the city of Toledo, depicted in the background, serves as the ground connection for this cycle, linking the two abstracts to a particular locale and providing an essential counterbalance.

 

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View of Toledo, circa 159…
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The blue sky enframing the figures resembles very much a liquid threatening to drown everything in an engulfing cascade. It comes to mind that perhaps this is what the horse so urgently senses — animals being very in tune with upcoming changes in nature. Regardless, the cold (and to my mind somewhat repelling) hue creates a portending sense of uneasiness and unresolved tension, and even the blazing white color of the ungulate forces us to look away — or concentrate on the vision before us by overcoming emotional distress and making some sort of a spiritual achievement. In a way, this is a very personal communication of the artist’s faith, so intimate, it is difficult to continuously witness. Though it is clear what is about to happen in terms of action, the multitude of unfinished and impending things in terms of composition and palette casts an overwhelming sense of mystery and uncertainty — making this canvas a mesmerizing piece of art.

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