How we get chapel from Saint Martin’s cape

Here is a Christian story for Easter. It is about Saint Martin of Tours, the patron saint of the poor, soldiers, conscientious objectors, tailors, and winemakers. I will try to explain how this all came to be as we follow the story of this most interesting early Christian. His story gives us the word “chapel”.

Early life of Saint Martin of Tours

Saint Martin of Tours was born in in Savaria, Pannonia (now Hungary) either in 316 or 336 AD. His father was a high-ranking officer in the Imperial Horse Guard of the Roman Army assigned to a post at Ticinum, in Northern Italy where Martin grew up.

Christianity was flourishing, it had been legalised in the Roman Empire and the persecution of Christians had ended. However, Martin’s parents were pagans, but at the age of 10, Martin became a Christian. With the spread of Christianity came many heretical interpretations so a long process of instruction had been adopted (known as the Catechism) before believers could be baptised into the church.

Catechism, instruction in the Christian faith, is a Greek word signifying instruction, or oral teaching, and has been used ever since the apostles’ times to denote that primary instruction in the Christian faith. While you received this Christian instruction you were known as a “catechumen”.

Martin followed his father into the cavalry and probably served in Gaul (now France) and Milan (in Italy) as a soldier (tick) in the emperor’s guard. According to his biographer Sulpicius Severus—he petitioned the Roman emperor to be released from the army because “I am Christ’s soldier—I am not allowed to fight”.

When accused of cowardice, he offered to stand in front of the battle line armed only with the cross. Luckily for him, the battle was called off and he was only imprisoned. Thus he became the first conscientious objector (tick).

St Martin’s miraculous cloak

After his release, but still in the military, Martin encounters a poor (tick) beggar in Amiens (France). The beggar was clothed only in rags and exposed to the cold. Martin removed his cloak and cut it in half with his sword (tailor, tick). He gave half to the beggar and kept the remnant for himself.

That night he dreamed that Jesus was clothed with the torn cloak, and that Jesus says to him “Martin, a mere catechumen has clothed me.” When he awoke, the garment had been restored. Moved by the vision and miracle, Martin became more dedicated to his religious instruction. He was baptised at the age of 18.

St Martin’s cloak becomes chapel

The cloak became an important Christian relic preserved in the Marmoutier Abbey near Tours. During the Middle Ages, St. Martin’s miraculous cloak (Latin: cappa Sancti Martini) was carried by kings into battle.

Cappa was the Latin word for cape or cloak. Because it had been chopped in half it was a small cape (the apparent restoration forgotten, perhaps), or in Latin, a “capella”. The small sanctuary in the abbey built for the relic also became known as a “capella”.

The priest in charge of the cloak in its reliquary (a container for relics, also known as a shrine) was called a “cappellanu”. This led to priests serving in the military to be called “cappellani”. The French translation is “chapelains”, from which the English word “chaplain” is derived.

This word soon became associated with all such sanctuaries in churches where sacred relics were kept. The word spread to most European languages (German Kapelle) and in English it became the word “chapel”. From the 17th century it became used for places of worship other than those of the established church. In Britain the non-conformist churches such as the Baptists all met in chapels rather than churches.

The patron saint of wine makers

I have managed to tick off all the patronages except that of wine growers (to some the most important one). One story is that 150 years after his death a miraculous grapevine appeared in France, but it is a little vague. With many Christian traditions it may have been borrowed from a Greek myth that the concept of pruning the vines, was discovered by Martin after watching a goat eat some of the foliage. However, it may be more prosaic in that St Martin’s feast day (11 November) coincides with the end of the agricultural year when wine fermentation began.