Mother was a tailor, Father was a gambling man

At first, Lunghu thought it was the journalistic equivalent of taunting or unsportsmanlike conduct (or maybe a case of deja vu all over again):  news from Europe that the Prado has uncovered a previously-unknown painting by Bruegel el viejo during the process of cleaning and restoring an obscure work entrusted to their care by a Spanish collector.   Lunghu even experienced a reflexive twitch in some minor muscles that he rarely uses when he read that the painting, El vino de la fiesta de San Martin, was executed in tempera rather than in Bruegel’s usual oils.   Fortunately, close examination of the garments worn by reveling peasants depicted in the work revealed no trace of denim.

Furthermore, although the Prado has occasionally been the victim of a hoax or two,  it is a world-class museum that can proudly claim status as the cultural standard-bearer of a nation with a passionate commitment to artistic greatness.   Its staff are consummate professionals with international reputations.   So this truly looks like the real deal, which Lunghu is happy to hear:  Bruegel is one of his favorite artists.   To Lunghu’s eyes, Bruegel’s ‘San Martin’ composition shows the clear influence of his predecessor and compatriot Hieronymous Bosch (another of Lunghu’s favorites).  However, (very much unlike Bosch!) one of Bruegel’s admirable qualities as a artist is the non-judgmental perspective that his paintings evoke.  As H.W. Janson would have it, “when [Bruegel] dealt with religious subjects he did so in an oddly ambiguous way.”  For example, is the equestrian figure at the right of the scene Saint Martin himself, or a ceremonial stand-in?   On the one hand, (in illustration of the saint’s principal legend) the horseman has his cloak tucked under his right arm, with his drawn sword preparing to cut it in half:  note the beggar on crutches to his right.   On the other hand…

On St. Martin’s Day (November 11th), children in Flanders and the southern and north-western parts of the Netherlands participate in paper lantern processions.  The children sing songs about St. Martin and about their lanterns.  Often, a man dressed as St. Martin rides on a horse in front of the procession.

Here’s some background to the painting’s revelry:
A fast period following St. Martin’s Day lasted 40 days, and was, therefore, called “Quadragesima Sancti Martini,” which means in Latin “the forty days of St. Martin.”  At St. Martin’s eve and on the feast day, people ate and drank very heartily for a last time before they started to fast.  This fasting time was later called “Advent” by the Catholic Church.

St. Martin is the patron saint of beggars, of horsemen, of France, and of the military.  It’s no coincidence whatsoever that St. Martin’s feast day is November 11, a.k.a. Veterans Day/Remembrance Day/Armistice Day.  [ No jokes about the French military will be permitted on this blog.   To be sure, their officer corps has long had problems (stemming in large measure from what Francois Bayrou euphemistically refers to as ‘occult influences’), but so does the US military –and then some.  However, the rank-and-file poilu is among the finest in the world when it comes to bravery, patriotism (a French word, I’ll have you know), and professionalism.   Faithful readers on Juan de Nova, I salute you! ]

Martin’s status as a soldier’s saint is somewhat unusual in light of the fact that he was also one of the earliest-known conscientious objectors in Euro-American history, preceding Sgt. York by something like 1.5 millennia.   Lunghu’s own attitude toward Martin is similarly ambivalent:  although Lunghu applauds Martin’s compassion and charity toward the poor, he’s not too enthusiastic about the militant religious intolerance that Martin exhibited during his 4th century tour of duty as Bishop of Tours.  For details, start with wikipedia, of course.

For these reasons and more, the Prado’s announcement of their discovery has generated a plethora of cultural allusions that have only just begun to reverberate within and among the minds of those who are attuned to perceive and comprehend them.   If possible, reflect deeply on this between now and November 11th.

Fun facts:

  • The food traditionally eaten on St. Martin’s Day is goose.
  • In Portugal, the phenomena of a sunny break to the chilly weather on Saint Martin’s Day which … still occurs today is called “Verao de Sao Martinho” (Saint Martin’s Summer) in honor of the cloak legend.
  • Some practitioners of Santeria associate St. Martin with the orisha Elegua (Yoruba guardian of the spirit-world crossroads, also a horseman).

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