Temptation of Saint Anthony (Image)

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Temptation of Saint Anthony (Image)

Saint Anthony the Great, born in Central Egypt about 251 ce (died c. 356), followed the call of the Gospel to abandon all riches and, in imitation of established local ascetics, went to live in the deep desert, the Panerémos, around 285. In about 305 he emerged as a spiritual guide to disciples in the cenobitic community at Scetis (modern Wadi Natrûn), returning to the eastern desert near the Red Sea five years later. He went to nearby Alexandria once during the persecution of the Christians and once to support Bishop Athanasius (c. 296–373) against the Arian heresy.

The prototypical eremitic saint, living for God alone through contemplation and total abstinence, Anthony is one of the holy men of the desert, abba, or apa (father), venerated in both Eastern and Latin Christianity. Abba Hilarion (291–371) refers to him as "pillar of light, giving light to the world," (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection 1975, p. 111).

His vita, written by Athanasius, served to direct the early monastic movement, also expressing platonic and stoic views. It details the saint's struggles, first against worldly thoughts (his sister, the honors of the world), then "impure thoughts," stirred up by the Devil impersonating a tantalizing woman, or appearing as a "black child" representing "the spirit of fornication" (Munnich 1996, p. 98-99). There follows full-fledged combat against armies of demons, their teeming multitude pitted against the obdurate solitude of the saint, as they beat and flail him fiercely and then try to terrorize him through nightly shape-shifting visions. Deeply gendered, the saint's vita opposes the "manliness" of his fight against the demons, commended by Christ after Christ watched him fight (Voragine 1993, pp. 93-96), to the mollifying effect of seductive women, agents of destructive lust. The Sayings thus underscore the power of sexual temptation, stating: "He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict with him and that is with fornication" (1975, p. 3).

Whereas "The myth of the desert was one of the most abiding creations of late antiquity …" (Brown 1988, p. 216), Anthony's proximity to demons was particularly arresting to the European imagination. Following a passage in St. Jerome's Life of Paulus the First Hermit—as medieval texts retold, and manuscripts illustrated—a centaur, a satyr, and a wolf steered Anthony's search for Paul (Voragine 1993, Walter 1996). It is to be noted that these three creatures were symbolically marked as aggressively male. The combination of demons and the habitual melancholic pose of the saint in iconography suggested to Maxime Préaud that Anthony is a demonic figure himself, connected to Saturn, Wotan, and the Devil. The saint's association with a dreaded devastating disease, a form of erysipelas called Saint Anthony's fire that he could inflict as well as cure and was perhaps metaphorically linked to burning temptation, may have reinforced his ambiguity in popular religion.

The implied struggle with sexual drive and seduction and the visual potential of a fantasy and visionary world filled with demons contributed to articulate the Temptation of Saint Anthony as a distinctive and prolific pictorial theme, especially among Flemish artists from the fifteenth century well into the seventeenth. The Temptation also inspired Gustave Flaubert's nineteenth-century short decadentist tale, Tentation de Saint Antoine [The temptation of Saint Anthony]. Among the many versions of the theme are two Temptations by Hieronymous Bosch (1450–c. 1516; Madrid, Lisbon), two by Jan Mandyn (1500–c. 1560; Haarlem and Rome), three by Pieter Huys (c. 1519–c. 1581; Paris, Antwerp, and New York), one attributed to Joachim Patinir (c. 1485–1524) or Quentin Matsys (c. 1465–1530; Madrid), plus drawings by Niklaus Manuel Deutsch (1484–1530), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569), and Jacques Callot (1592–1635).

Temptation iconography seized upon the encounter with demons and developed it from separate instances of lures and snares into a single, multifaceted onslaught on the saint's serenity, carried out by a motley cohort of demonic creatures. The enticing woman was increasingly foregrounded in this iconographic theme. One of her earliest representations is on the fourth of eight predella panels by the Siennese Master of the Osservanza (active 1425–1450; Yale, University Art Gallery) in which Anthony encounters a winged but modestly attired woman en route back to his cell. In another, (Venice, Correr Museum) that has been attributed to the enigmatic Henry (Herri) Patenier, perhaps a relative of Joachim Patinir; or Herri Met De Bles, also known as Il Civetta, Little Owl (c. 1510–1550), two young women with large breasts and heavy necklaces are presented by a female purveyor with deer's antlers. Huys (Paris, Louvre) depicts the scene with a naked courtesan, her thighs and belly painted or tattooed, in the lower middle of the composition, and by her side a veiled woman and a hunchbacked hag with owl and distaff. In the work attributed to Patinir or Matsys, women offer an apple to the saint; among them, a wrinkled old woman exposing her breasts. All in all, a hagiographical legend that exiled and erased women from the narrative itself gave rise to a pictorial tradition that reinserted them on the basis of unflinching sexual power.

see also Art; Catholicism; Folk Healers and Healing; Symbolism.


Athanasius. 1980. The Life of Anthony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg. New York: Paulist Press.

Alexandre, Monique. 1996. "La Construction d'un modèle de sainteté dans la Vie d'Antoine par Athanase." In Saint Antoine entre mythe et légende, ed. Philippe Walter. Grenoble: ELLUG.

Baltrusaitis, Jurgis. 1981. Le Moyen Age fantastique: Antiquités et exotismes dans l'art gothique. Paris: Flammarion.

Brown, Peter. 1988. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Edsman, Carl-Martin. 1949. Ignis divinus. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup.

Flaubert, Gustave. 1932. Tentation de Saint Antoine [The temptation of Saint Anthony]. New York: Rarity Press.

Munnich, Olivier.1996. "Les Démons d'Antoine dans la Vie d'Antoine." In Saint Antoine entre mythe et légende, ed. Philippe Walter. Grenoble: ELLUG.

Préaud, Maxime. 1983. "Saturne, Satan, Wotan et Saint Antoine ermite." In Les Cahiers de Fontenay: Alchimie mystique et traditions populaires. Fontenay aux Roses: E.N.S.

Voragine, Jacobus de. 1993. The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Walter, Philippe, ed. 1996. Saint Antoine entre mythe et légende. Grenoble: ELLUG.

Walter, Philippe. 1996. "Saint Antoine, le Centaure et le Capricorne du 17 janvier." In Saint Antoine entre mythe et légende. ed. Philippe Walter. Grenoble: ELLUG.

Ward, Benedicta, trans. 1975. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. London: Mowbrays.

                                Francesca Canadé Sautman