The Many Temptations of St. Anthony the Great (I)

The plights of Saint Anthony the Great (or Anthony of Egypt or Anthony Abbot) during his extremely long sojourns in the Egyptian desert around the 3rd and 4th centuries, and all the torments supposedly inflicted to him by the Devil, are an often-repeated subject in history of art.

After the first narrative by Athanasius of Alexandria –Anthony’s contemporary– the live and deeds of this Father of all monks and founder of Christian monasticism have inspired unacountable illustrations and literary works throughout the centuries to our days. Some of them are extraordinary; really amazing; like several Italian frescoes of the 10th century by unknown artists, many illuminations in books from the later Middle Ages, the engraving of Martin Schöngauer (ca. 1490) –after which the young Michelangelo Buonarroti made a wonderful oil (1487-88)–, the two or three oils by Hieronymus Bosch (1501 & ca. 1505), the paintings of Mathias Grünewald (1512-1516), Pieter Huys (1547), Matteus van Helmont (ca. 1640-1660), Salvator Rosa (1645)… or, in the modern era, the works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Fantin-Latour, Lovis Corinth, Leonora Carrington, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí… To the last two I dedicate the first chapter of this virtual gallery on the subject.

Salvador Dalí‘s painting “La Temptació de Sant Antoni” is clearly my favourite among all 20th century’s “Temptations”. He painted it in 1946, in response to a contest held by the David L. Loew – Albert Lewin film production company for a painting with this subject to be used in the film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. This was the only art contest in which Dalí participated (and ultimately his painting was not chosen for the film; Max Ernst version was.)

It is and oil on canvas, measuring 119.5 x 89.7 cm., and is now located at the Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Belgium:

Max Ernst painting Die Versuchung des Heiligen Antonius”, also an oil on canvas, is quite similar in size: 128 x 108 cm. It may be seen at the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum der Stadt Duisburg, Germany:


Dalí chose to represent the temptations themselves, while reaching Anthony as a really bewildering parade of elephants led by a horse… A mise en scène of great originality, as not seen before in Western art. At the same time, he pays his homage to Bernini (the obelisk on the back of the second elephant) and Palladio (the palace just behind). The Saint is naked, perhaps suggesting his vulnerability, and holds up a cross as a weapon to ward off the vision; with his left arm he supports on a stone (which, in my oppinion, could represent the Roman Catholic Church, as founded by Peter –just remember: “Tu est Petrus”)

By contrast, Ernst focuses on the fight and the suffering of great torments by Anthony; rather truculent and dreadful! Some of the creatures depicted are similar to the ones imagined by Mathias Grünewald four centuries before, and a couple of them are, of course, bird-like, as birds were a main obssesion of the German artist since his early childhood. The monstrous being featured in Salvator Rosa‘s “Le Tentazioni di Sant’Antonio” from 1645 could have inspired the fearsome demon that bites Anthony’s right arm in Ernst’s painting.

I will deal with these masterworks by Grünewald and Rosa in next posts, but I upload them here as well for quicker and easier reference to those with actual interest:

[In the following post of the series I will comment the engraving by Martin Schöngauer and the stunning oil and tempera panel that Michelangelo painted after it –mostly as a copy– when he was only 12 or 13 years old (it is the earliest known painting by him).]


By Li Fontrodona, 2017

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8 thoughts on “The Many Temptations of St. Anthony the Great (I)

  1. Òndia! Les dues primeres pintures m’han deixat molt impressionada. Com tu ja apuntes, la sensació que deixen en l’observador és molt diferent i, mentre que una és fascinadora i fins i tot agradable de contemplar, l’altra fa por i tot!!! De fet, les trobo genials perquè, cadascuna a la seva manera, fan que la imaginació comenci a volar entre criatures surrealistes, originals, estranyes i esfereïdores… Són brutals!!!

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Ben fet 🙂 Segurament no saps que l’edifici que apareix als núvols en la pintura de Dalí és l’Escorial i que ell mateix s’hi ha representat quan era petit, donant la mà a sa mare -o potser és el seu germà mort, que també es deia Salvador, per cert-. Hi ha un altre quadre d’ell on es va retratar, també de petit(a), com a nena, amb vulva i tot 🙂 Ja te’l passaré!

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