The Temptation of Saint Anthony is a recurring theme in many artistic works. This theme depicts Anthony the Great, a saint retired in the desert of Egypt, confronted with the temptation of the Devil in the form of visions of earthly pleasures. The Vita Antonii, written by Saint Athanasius after the death of Saint Anthony, relates the various temptations of the Devil, who appears in different forms and sends ferocious animals to attack the hermit.
Jacques de Voragine, in the 13th century, summarized the life of Saint Anthony in The Golden Legend, based on the story of Saint Athanasius. This theme has inspired many painters through the ages.
Pieter Brueghel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Early 16th century painting exhibited in the Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria, Genoa.
In the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert also became interested in the theme of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, writing three versions of the story, only the last of which was published in 1874. Flaubert departed from the hagiographic tradition by creating new hallucinations in which Antoine sees the religions and heresies of the first centuries of Christianity appear. In the 1874 version, the hermit regains his serenity by discovering the origin of life, in the form of microscopic beings.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony - Parentino 1490
Currently, the Temptation of Saint Anthony is not only a subject addressed by Christians, but also a theme that has inspired a large number of works of art throughout the centuries. From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, this theme has given rise to an abundant and diversified iconography, in which artists have shown great creativity.
Today, this story is known for the many works of art that bear its name, rather than for its religious context. Artists have exploited this theme to create visual depictions of Antoine's confrontation with diabolical temptations, providing striking and provocative visions for viewers. Works of art inspired by the Temptation of Saint Anthony abound in museums and art galleries around the world, testifying to the lasting influence of this story on culture and art.
The Temptation of Saint AnthonyJan Mandyn
The pictorial tradition of the Temptation of Saint Anthony often depicts the saint in a landscape populated by demonic creatures, often monstrous, who compete in cruelty, torture and obscenity. It is this tradition that Hieronymus Bosch illustrates through some fifteen works, including a triptych teeming with monsters and fantastic evocations of the different forms of evil and sin that overwhelm Antony (c. 1501, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga de Lisbon).
Several centuries later, the surrealists follow this tradition by creating variations that allow their fertile imagination to express itself. Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí produced two versions in 1945-1946. In the works of Max Ernst (Duisburg, Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum), the saint is struck down and tortured by various monsters that have arisen from a nearby lake. As for Dalí, his Temptation of Saint Anthony takes place in a desert where Anthony, naked, brandishes the cross to fight against the appearance of four symbols of temptation, carried by animals with immense slender legs which suspend them between earth and sky.
The Temptation of Saint AnthonyFrans Francken
In these works, the artists explore the limits of their imagination to create visually striking depictions, with grotesque and bizarre details that captivate the viewer's attention. The different versions of the Temptation of Saint Anthony throughout the history of art testify to the richness and diversity of the possible interpretations of this story.
As far as sculpture is concerned, the theme of the Temptation of Saint Anthony is much rarer than in painting. However, there are notable examples such as a capital in the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay where the saint is depicted standing and hieratic, resisting two large, grimacing devils attempting to strip him of his cloak. In contrast, Auguste Rodin chose a different approach with just two figures: Saint Anthony, wrapped in monastic vestment and prostrate on the ground, clutches a cross tightly to his face to resist temptation. On her back, a nude and voluptuous female figure is thrown backwards, symbolizing the carnal temptation that besieges her. This depiction of Rodin is emblematic of his modern and expressive style of sculpture.