About the Temptation of Saint Anthony the Abbot
Saint Anthony was born circa 251 in Egypt. We know his life fairly well, thanks to the biography written by his disciple Athanasius.
Following his parents’ death he gave away his money and around the age of 20 he started a life full of want as a hermit becoming the most famous monk of ancient Christendom. He lived an ascetic life of austerity, sacrifice and extreme solitude.
The first 35 years he lived retired into solitude in a grotto next to his birthplace, the following 20 years on a mountain on the other bank of the Nile and finally in a community of hermits in an oasis in the desert.
Though he led a hard life, full of deprivation, Anthony was very long-lived: death (which he had predicted) took him at the age of 105, on the 17th of January 355 (or 356).
Saint Anthony became a model for the denial of vice, specifically pleasures of the flesh. During his isolation he had to fight temptation by the devil under different forms, especially under that of the most seductive woman or also of wild beasts. He had to fight evil thoughts, hallucinations, lusts and desires of all kind.
Anthony’s veneration grew rapidly in the Western church:
- in the 11th century a Byzantine emperor had given his relics to a French count;
- accounts of miraculous healing of skin diseases, especially those afflicted with the widely spread St. Anthony’s fire, an inflammation of the skin due to ergot poisoning, led to the founding of the Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony;
- his life was also described in the popular ‘Legenda Aurea’ or Golden Legend. This was a medieval collection of legendary lives and accounts of miracles of important Christian saints compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, the archbishop of Genoa;
The iconographical theme of the temptation of Saint Anthony goes back to the late Middle Ages, to Hieronymus Bosch. It was also a popular theme in Flanders where we can trace a line from Pieter Brueghel I into the 17th century to David Teniers II, David Ryckaert III and Mattheus van Helmont.
About our painting
Our painting, which originally must have been part of a larger composition, shows our lonely hermit the abbot Anthony praying quietly in front of an altar-shaped rock; while praying placidly he tries to withstand seduction by two horned women; their horns indicate they are manifestations of the devil: the left one is dressed like a buffoon, the right one is a nude prostitute. Thanks to fasting and penance Anthony’s moral aptitude will prevail.
Saint Antony the Abbot is usually depicted with a pig.
During the Middle Ages the Hospitallers of St Anthony healed people with skin diseases, especially those afflicted with St. Anthony’s fire, an inflammation of the skin due to ergot poisoning. They supported their charities by raising swines; they were the only ones who were authorised to keep pigs within the walls of the towns.
Saint Anthony was also said to have had a pig that warned him of the hours of the day that he had to pray.