Matthias Grünewald, St. Anthony Meeting Paul the Hermit in the Desert, 1512-1516
When I was a very young man, head filled with the teachings of the Catholic Church, the saint that most fascinated me was Saint Anthony the Hermit. The older I get, the more I identify with him, particularly since I live in the midst of an increasingly dessicated and scorched desert. I love the natural desert that surrounds me; it’s the culturally and morally bankrupt culture of the country I live in that is disconcerting, where the most popular historical writer is Bill O’Reilly, the most popular work of fiction is 50 Shades of Gray and political leaders consistently lie to a subject population who insist upon being lied to–a country whose ruling belief is “might makes right” and whose artistic culture is defined by “whatever sells.” I’ve not yet had the opportunity to crack open my copy of 50 Shades, but I look forward with eager anticipation to explore the edifying tale of what I presume is an Ayn Rand doppelgänger and her sexual fantasies. What am I in for? Golden showers? Bestiality? Copulation with men wearing Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin masks?
Sassetta, St. Anthony the Hermit Tortured by the Devils, 1423
St. Anthony the Hermit is credited with being one of the founders of Christian monasticism. He’s also referred to as St. Antony of Egypt and Antony of the Desert. He was born in 251 CE in Egypt. At the age of 20 he inherited a large estate from his parents but upon their deaths sold it off in accordance with his Christian beliefs. At the age of 21, Anthony began his life of solitude, moving to the Libyan desert where he lived in an abandoned tomb. His ascetic regimen consisted of a single meal a day (usually after sunset), constant prayer, reading and manual labor.
David Teniers, St. Anthony and St. Paul Fed by Ravens
According to the story, St. Anthony’s temptations were visited upon him by Satan in the form of sexual seductresses. On one occasion, frustrated with St. Anthony’s resistance to the pleasures of the flesh, the Devil beat Anthony severely and left him for dead. He only survived due to the ministrations of a neighbor, who found him when bringing bread to the Saint.
Michelangelo(?) after Martin Schongauer, The Torment of St. Anthony
Of course, looking at a painting like the one above, it becomes immediately apparent that the artist interpreting the canonical version of the Life of Saint Anthony hardly considered his temptations to consist of seductive women. Artists are like that, of course, invariably running off in different directions from what the writers and critics with their rational-brained attempts to control reality would have us believe. Even modern painters, like the ones below, continue the tradition of divagating from the text. Max Ernst (directly below) painted his Temptation of St. Anthony while living in Sedona, Arizona, where he arrived after fleeing Hitler’s Germany, his work like that of so many other vanguard artists falling into a category the Nazis called “degenerate art.”
Max Ernst, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1945
Joos van Craesbeeck, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1650
The unfairly little-known or heralded Flemish painter Joos van Craesbeck (above), gives us an interpretation that looks oddly modern. Apparently his conception of the temptation that St. Anthony endured was the invasion of his rational mind by the demons of his subconscious. In van Craesbeeck’s beautiful and refreshingly original version, Anthony seems to have entirely succumbed.
Salvador Dalí, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946
The painting above above was done by an artist who did eventually wind up succumbing to madness, being carried out of his burning hotel in a completely dissociated state. There are various explanations for Dalí’s state of disintegration when found raving mad in his room in the midst of a raging fire that was either set by him or due to the negligence of his caretakers. I tend to believe that he sold his soul to the devil, the one pointed out to us by André Breton’s brilliant anagram identifying Salvador Dalí as “Avida Dollars.” Oddly, many people nowadays don’t believe that one can sell one’s soul to the devil, particularly the ones devoting their artistic lives to making it big in the contemporary art circus. Dalí was apparently a fan of Hitler as he avidly encouraged the fascist Franco to murder political prisoners. He also devoutly supported the Spanish church, which thoroughly approved of Hitler’s solution to the Jewish problem in Germany. In the end the artist was afflicted with the same terrible trembling from Parkinson’s-like symptoms that incapacitated Hitler as well.
Hieronymus Bosch, Saint Anthony the Hermit, 1500
But back to the story of St. Anthony. Having successfully triumphed over the Devil in the desert, Anthony went to live in the abandoned ruins of a mountain fort, where he stayed for 20 years in near-complete isolation. He finally came down from the mountain at the age of 54, whereupon he founded the monastery at Fayum.
Diego Velazquez, St. Anthony Visits St. Paul in the Desert, 1635
Hieronymus Bosch, The Temptations of St. Anthony, 1500
In 311, St. Anthony travelled to Alexandria to protest the martyrdom of Christians, just two years before the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity. After the persecutions stopped, Anthony returned to the desert and founded a monastery called Pispir. He returned to solitude, tending a desert garden but eventually came to live with a company of followers who he instructed in the ways of the monastic life.
Albrecht Dürer, St. Anthony the Hermit, 1519
In 355, Anthony again travelled to Alexandria, in this case preaching against heresies in Christian doctrine that disputed Christ being one with God the Father. Saint Anthony died in 356, at the age of 105, reportedly being in good health right up to the end.
Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of St. Anthony, middle panel of triptych, 1500
I’ve always wondered about the Abe Lincoln head with the stovepipe hat a little off-center down and to the left. Anyone having any insight into that, I’d be glad to hear it. I’ve read that stovepipe hats arrived in the latter part of the 18th century, picturing JMW Turner wearing his. Had the inventor of the stovepipe hat been looking at Bosch’s painting for ideas in headwear for men? Was Bosch really a member of an Adamite cult employing hallucinogenic substances and having visions of the future? Of course, stovepipe top hats are regularly associated with magicians. I’ve lately been thinking of how to get some kind of brand identification, which every serious artist needs if they’re to gain recognition, and I’m coming very close to settling on a stovepipe hat, which is why my thoughts are tending to circulate upon this vexing question of its true origins.
The canvases below are treatments by modern painters that stick to the sexual-temptation version of Saint Anthony’s life.
Paul Cézanne, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1873-77
Lovis Corinth, The Temptation of Saint Anthony after Gustave Flaubert, 1908
Lovis Corinth, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1897
And, next, the plants are indistinguishable from the stones.
Pebbles bear a resemblance to brains, stalactites to udders, and iron-dust to tapestries adorned with figures. In pieces of ice he can trace efflorescences, impressions of bushes and shells—so that one cannot tell whether they are the impressions of those objects or the objects themselves. Diamonds glisten like eyes, and minerals palpitate.
And he is no longer afraid! He lies down flat on his face, resting on his two elbows, and, holding in his breath, he gazes around.
Insects without stomachs keep eating; dried-up ferns begin to bloom afresh; and limbs which were wanting sprout forth again.
Finally, he perceives little globular bodies as large as pins’ heads, and garnished all round with eyelashes. A vibration agitates them.
Antony, in ecstasy—
“O bliss! bliss! I have seen the birth of life; I have seen the beginning of motion. The blood beats so strongly in my veins that it seems about to burst them. I feel a longing to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. I would like to have wings, a tortoise-shell, a rind, to blow out smoke, to wear a trunk, to twist my body, to spread myself everywhere, to be in everything, to emanate with odours, to grow like plants, to flow like water, to vibrate like sound, to shine like light, to be outlined on every form, to penetrate every atom, to descend to the very depths of matter—to be matter!”
The dawn appears at last; and, like the uplifted curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds, wreathing themselves into large volutes, reveal the sky.
In the very middle of it, and in the disc of the sun itself, shines the face of Jesus Christ.
Antony makes the sign of the Cross, and resumes his prayers.
Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of St. Anthony
Joachim Patinir, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1515-22
Anonymous, Temptation of St. Anthony, 1550 from the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Duschanek János, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1947
I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.