January 17, 2023

Saint Anthony the Great in the Art and Literature of the West

 Hieronymus Bosch. Temptation of Saint Anthony. 1505. Lisbon, National Museum of Ancient Art

Of the many Western European images associated with ascetic virtues, healing powers and demonic temptations, the most popular motif stands out from the 15th century - the Temptation of Saint Anthony.

The earliest work to depict Saint Anthony being assaulted by demons is a wall painting in the atrium of Santa Maria Antiqua of the 10th century. The subject became especially popular in the late European Middle Ages, from around 1450. The century following saw the most famous depictions in book illumination, prints and paintings. These include among others the depictions of Martin Schöngauer (ca. 1470), Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1505),  Matthias Grünewald (1512–1516), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and David Teniers the Elder (1582–1649).

In the modern era the theme has been treated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí and the French author Gustave Flaubert, who considered his 1874 book The Temptation of Saint Anthony to be his masterwork. Flaubert's contemporary Odilon Redon was inspired by the 1874 interpretation to create three series of lithographs. 

In 1946 the David L. Loew-Albert Lewin film production company held a contest for a painting on the theme of Saint Anthony's Temptation, with the winner to be used in the film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. Various artists produced paintings on this subject (Ivan Albright, Eugene Berman, Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Louis Guglielmi, Horace Pippin, Abraham Rattner, Stanley Spencer and Max Ernst. Fini did not produce a painting, but the others were paid $500 for their submissions, with an additional $2,500 prize for the winner.), and the contest was won by Max Ernst, whose work was duly shown in the film. However, the most well-known of these paintings is a failed contestant, Salvador Dalí's version. Film critic Bosley Crowther condemned the Ernst painting as "downright nauseous" but a contemporary review from Variety stated it was "one of the focal points of the story a la Dorian Gray, flashed on the screen the first time it’s shown in brilliant Technicolor for good effect."

The variety of images of Saint Anthony in Western art is due to the fact that he is considered the patron saint of many professions: peasants, horsemen, bell ringers, basket makers, brush makers, butchers, undertakers. In the East, Anthony is revered as a hermit and father of monks, in the West, on the contrary, as a miraculous healer, who is credited with the ability to heal. Anthony's popularity peaked during the Middle Ages in the Western Church.

Around 1070, the Order of Saint Anthony (known as the Antonines or Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony) was founded by Gaston of Dauphiné and his son, in thanksgiving for miraculous relief from "St. Anthony's fire," assumed to be either gangrene or a disease caused by severe ergot poisoning epidemic. Near the Church of Saint Anthony at Saint-Didier de la Mothe they built a hospital, which became the central house of the order. The members devoted themselves to the care of the sick, particularly those afflicted with St. Anthony's fire, they wore a black habit with the Greek letter Tau (St. Anthony's cross) in blue. At first laymen, they received monastic vows from Honorius III (1218), and were constituted canons regular with the Rule of Saint Augustine by Boniface VIII (1297). The congregation spread through France Spain, and Italy, and gave the Church a number of distinguished scholars and prelates. Among their privileges was that of caring for the sick of the papal household. With wealth came relaxation of discipline and a reform was ordained (1616) and partially carried out. In 1777 the congregation was canonically united with the Knights of Malta but was suppressed during the French Revolution.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (French: La Tentation de Saint Antoine) is a dramatic poem in prose (often referred as a novel) by the French author Gustave Flaubert published in 1874. Flaubert spent his whole adult life working fitfully on the book. In 1845, at age 24, Flaubert visited the Balbi Palace in Genoa, and was inspired by a painting of the same title, then attributed to Bruegel the Elder (now thought to be by one of his followers). Flaubert worked at the subject in three versions, completed in 1849, 1856 (with extracts published at that time) and 1872, before publishing the final version in 1874. It takes as its subject the famous temptation faced by Saint Anthony the Great, in the Egyptian desert, a theme often repeated in medieval and modern art. It is written in the form of a play script, detailing one night in the life of Anthony the Great, during which he is faced with great temptations.

The iconographic attributes of Anthony include the T-shaped cross, the bells of the hospitallers (Antonines attracted attention with bells when collecting donations), a pig (Antonines were allowed to keep pigs, which were granted the privilege to run freely through the streets of cities), fire and a lion.

Become a Patreon or Paypal Supporter:

Recurring Gifts

Contact Form


Email *

Message *