In the earliest years of Christianity, the vast majority (not the totality) of those whom the Church honored as Saints were those who had witnessed to the Faith by dying during persecution. Such persons were called “martyrs”, the Greek word for “witness”; already by the later 2nd century, this was so well known in the West as a Christian technical term that it was taken into Latin, rather than being translated as “testis.” Those who suffered for the Faith, e.g. by imprisonment or exile, but were not actually killed, were distinguished from the martyrs by the term “confessores”, a Christian invention, from the verb “confiteor – to confess, acknowledge.”
Once persecution ceased to be a regular feature of the Church’s life, the number of martyrs diminished considerably, and Christians began to recognize a new conception of sanctity in the lives of heroically virtuous men and women. This is often erroneously said to be a later development than it really was; it was already in place in the later decades of the 4th century. In 386, St John Chrysostom, while still a priest of Antioch, preached a sermon on St Philogonius, who was bishop of that see from 320 to 323, and not a martyr. “The day of the blessed Philogonius, whose feast we are now keeping, has called our speech to the telling of his righteous deeds.” Among Latin-speaking Christians, the term “confessor” then came to mean any male Saint who did not die as a martyr. Chrysostom’s contemporary, St Gaudentius, who was bishop of Brescia from 387-410, uses it in this sense when speaking of St Basil the Great.
(A 19th century Coptic icon of Anthony the Abbot and Paul the First Hermit, saints of the mid-fourth century who rank among the very venerated as confessors in the newer sense of the term. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St Martin, who was born in the central European Roman province of Pannonia ca. 316, and converted to Christianity in his late teens. After serving for many years as a soldier, he became a disciple of St Hilary of Poitiers and a monk; in 371, he was forcibly drafted to be bishop of Tours, and served in that role until his death in 397. He was one of the very first “confessors” in the new sense of the term to be widely honored as a Saint in the West, thanks to the biography of him written by a friend and disciple named Sulpicius Severus.
In his third chapter, Sulpicius tells this story from St Martin’s soldiering days, which came to be the best-known episode of his career, and the subject of countless artworks.
Quodam … tempore, cum jam nihil praeter arma et simplicem militiae vestem haberet, media hieme, quae solito asperior inhorruerat, … obvium habet in porta Ambianensium civitatis pauperem nudum: qui cum praetereuntes ut sui misererentur oraret omnesque miserum praeterirent, intellegit vir Deo plenus sibi illum, aliis misericordiam non praestantibus, reservari quid tamen ageret? nihil praeter chlamydem, qua indutus erat, habebat: iam enim reliqua in opus simile consumpserat. arrepto itaque ferro, quo accinctus erat, mediam dividit partemque eius pauperi tribuit, reliqua rursus induitur. … nocte igitur insecuta, cum se sopori dedisset, vidit Christum chlamydis suae, qua pauperem texerat, parte vestitum. … mox ad angelorum circumstantium multitudinem audit Iesum clara voce dicentem: “Martinus adhuc catechumenus hac me veste contexit.”
(St Martin giving his cloak to the beggar, and his subsequent vision, depicted in a sacramentary produced at the monastery of Fulda at the beginning of the 11th century. Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, ms. Msc. Lit. 1, f. 170r)
… at a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of a winter which had grown more severe than usual …, at the gate of Amiens he met a poor and naked man, whom as he entreated the passers-by to have compassion upon him, all passed by in his wretchedness; and whom Martin, as a man full of God, understood to be left for himself, since others showed no pity. But what might he do? He had nothing but the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already given away all his other garments. Therefore, taking the sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak in two, and gave one part to the poor man, and clothed himself with the remainder. The following night, when Martin had gone to sleep, he saw Christ covered in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. … Soon after, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to a multitude of angels standing round, “Martin, who is still a catechumen, clothed me with this robe.”
In this passage, for “cloak” Sulpicius uses the Greek word “chlamys”, which was already common in Latin in Plautus’ time. In the early Middle Ages, however, it was generally replaced by “cappa”, which is related to the English words “cape”, “cap” and “cope” (the liturgical vestment.)
Although it may seem like a folk-etymology, it is actually true that the Latin word “cappella – a chapel” derives from “cappa” used in reference to a relic of St Martin’s cloak. As explained by the Catholic Encyclopedia, “This cape, or its representative, was afterwards preserved as a relic and accompanied the Frankish kings in their wars, and the tent which sheltered it became known also as cappella or capella. In this tent Mass was celebrated by the military chaplains (capellani). When at rest in the palace the relic likewise gave its name to the oratory where it was kept, and subsequently any oratory where Mass and Divine service were celebrated was called capella (in Latin), chapelle (in French), chapel.” Likewise, the Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry on the word “chapel”, cites these words from an anonymous life of Charlemagne: “Quo nomine Francorum reges propter capam St. Martini sancta sua appellare solebant. – And by this name, the kings of the Franks were wont to call their holy places, because of the cloak of St Martin.”