One of the best depictions of the ordeals that St. Anthony Abbot went through during his retirement in the desert is an engraving from the very late Middle Ages (ca. 1470-75) by the Alsatian Martin Schöngauer (ca. 1435/50-1491): “St. Antonius von Dämonen gepeinigt” (St. Anthony tormented by demons).
As the title says, the work focuses on the torments inflicted to Anthony by some frantic and grotesque –and frightening– demons. It could particularly illustrate chapter IX from Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony, where the monk, while levitating in the air during meditation, is attacked by hellish creatures.
There are two very similar versions of the engraving and, as far as I know, the one I show here corresponds to the second (*). Copies of it are kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, all in USA – One copy of the first version (with only very minor details lacking) is in the British Museum, London, UK.
As the note on the copy in the MET states, this is “one of the most fantastic and grotesque fabrications in the history of printmaking. Although this is one of Schöngauer’s earliest prints, it was probably his most influential.”
Not much later, this work captivated the young Michelangelo Buonarroti, who painted a great copy of it with oil and tempera on wood (but not at all an exact copy, and some of the differences tell us interesting things about the artist, who was then some 12 years-old … and thus, born about the time Schöngauer’s made his etching –the mid 1470s.)
Besides the even more serene and detached attitude of Anthony, the rocks and the background landscape added below, the scales of the fish-like demon at the top left corner, and lots of minor details, the most peculiar variations are those shown in the creature at the bottom right. This is an androgynous and, perhaps, hermaphrodite beast in Schöngauer’s work, but, where it seems to show a pair of testicles, Michelangelo paints a somewhat protruding vulva; the anus looks very much like a mouth in both illustrations, but the young artist sees eyes where his elder just draw two curled appendices of the flowery tail, and this fortunate change adds up to the bewildering look of the creature.
Michelangelo’s juvenile oil (the earliest known painting by him) is kept at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX, USA.
Source of the images:
1(*) – Book scan of Giovinezza di Michelangelo, Catalogo a cura di Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt et al., Palazzo Vecchio / Casa Buonarroti, ArtificioSkira S.R.L., Firenze-Milano, 1999, p. 327 (image no. 44), ISBN 881185687
2 – Kimbell Art Museum website: https://www.kimbellart.org/collection-object/torment-saint-anthony
This post is the second Part of a series. You may find Part I here: https://linusfontrodona.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/the-many-temptations-of-st-anthony-the-great-i/
By Li Fontrodona, 2017
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