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Panel 12 - Martin escapes injury from the cutting down of a sacred pine tree

Chapter XIII of Sulpicius deals with Martin's ongoing battle against pagan cults. After destroying an ancient pagan temple in one town, he turned his attention to a pine tree which was also sacred to the cult. The pagan priest and his followers, outraged by his acts, saw an opportunity for revenge and challenged Martin to stand beneath the tree, which leans heavily in one direction (note how the artist has shown the remains of the stump curving towards him) while they cut it down. Sure enough, when the trunk was cut through the tree began falling towards the saint, who made the sign of the cross, stopping it in its fall and sending it spinning back in the opposite direction. Sulpicius, in his usual understated manner, is content to say that the tree 'almost crushed a group of rustics standing there'. By contrast, the compiler of the Golden Legend (a man not given to understatement) wrote how the falling tree crushed a number of the pagan cult members and how their erstwhile companions, amazed by the miracle, all converted to Christianity on the spot. The designer of this window was clearly inspired by the latter tradition and has shown the violent demise of two of the 'enemies of the Faith'.

Episodes like this, emphasising Martin’s key role in stamping out heresy, often in the face of violent opposition, serve as a useful reminder that while this window, and the cathedral that housed it were being made, church and state were engaged in a violent struggle in southern France against the Cathar heretics. Indeed, in 1210 the Bishop of Chartres, Reginald of Bar (reg.1182-1217) was himself commander of a group of knights in the Albigensian Crusade.

The unfortunate juxtaposition of this scene and panel 10, each featuring armed men and prominent trees, might lead the uninitiated viewer to suppose the scenes were part of the same episode, when in fact they are quite distinctive events in the Life of St Martin – a reminder that one cannot generally ‘read’ visual narratives without knowing the story in advance. These images were not intended to serve as ‘books for the illiterate’ but were tools to help the ignorant and educated alike reflect upon stories they already knew.