August 11, 2003

The Temptations of St Anthony

I was thinking the other day that wouldn’t it be good if there were an on-line art-history resource with a thematic or motivic index, such that one could find all of the famous paintings depicting the myth of Danaæ, say, or those including scenes from Boccaccio’s Decameron. I was pleased to find that there is indeed such an index: which lists not only scenes inspired by classical mythology, but also those taking their cue from Biblical tradition, or depicting incidents from the lives of the saints.

Martin Schongauer. The Temptation of St. Anthony. c. 1480-90. Engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

In fact it was something like this lattermost list that I was looking for, as I was hoping to track down some pictorial versions of The Temptation of St. Anthony. Having said all that, a title search at the ever-reliable Artcyclopedia ultimately proved more useful in this instance, when it came to hunting down the images I had in mind, but I shall be bookmarking Olga’s indexes all the same.

Bernardo Parentino (aka Parenzano), 'Temptations of St Anthony', c. 1494, oil on panel, Galleria Doria-Pamphili, Rome.
And when the enemy could not endure it. but was even fearful that in a short time Anthony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment - St Athanasius.
Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of St. Anthony, ca. 1505-1515, Oil on panel. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful - ibid.
Matthias Grünewald, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1515, Panel from the Isenheim altarpiece: Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar.

In the 15th and 16th-century depictions of the tale, ferocity and weirdness predominate, and these pictures could more accurately be described as illustrating the torments of the saint, focussing as they do on the physical pain and fear which the demons inflicted on him.

* * *

Eugène Isabey, The Temptation of St. Anthony, ca. 1869, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

The importance of the temptation as a pictorial theme seems to have declined during the 17th Century, and is very seldom seen during the 18th. Indeed the subject did not come back into vogue until the latter half of the 19th Century, with the publication of Flaubert’s re-imagining of the tale providing an important imaginative impetus. In the intervening centuries, it is plain that the demons had lost much of their power to scare and intimidate, gaining instead in subtlety, perhaps, as the focus of the majority of these latterday images is squarely on material and, especially, sexual temptation…

Paul Cézanne, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, ca 1870; Oil on canvas; E. G. Buhrle Collection, Zurich.
First of all he tried to lead him away from the discipline, whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other relaxations of life, and at last the difficulty of virtue and the labour of it; he suggested also the infirmity of the body and the length of the time.
Félicien Rops, The Temptation of St Anthony, 1878.
And the devil, unhappy wight, one night even took upon him the shape of a woman and imitated all her acts simply to beguile Antony. But he, his mind filled with Christ and the nobility inspired by Him, and considering the spirituality of the soul, quenched the coal of the other's deceit. Again the enemy suggested the ease of pleasure. But he like a man filled with rage and grief turned his thoughts to the threatened fire and the gnawing worm, and setting these in array against his adversary, passed through the temptation unscathed. All this was a source of shame to his foe.
Salvador Dalí, The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1946.

Clicking on the images will open larger versions of the same.

Posted by misteraitch at August 11, 2003 04:08 PM | TrackBack

I recommend ArtMagick's thematic index instead of or at least in addition to Better site design, more (better quality) images and no pop-ups.

Posted by: e. on August 12, 2003 05:21 AM

alternatively, if you have access to a university library, you could use the iconoclass system ( either on cd-rom or paper version. it is more detailed than the two websites that are cited above...

Posted by: alexandre on September 4, 2003 06:08 AM

your site is a treasure. i finally stumbled upon it today and i must thank you for the amazing job you've done and the idea behind it. an artist's representation of the world of myths keeps our imaginations sharp.
thank you again!

Posted by: david on January 4, 2004 01:59 AM

I have recently started a Art History course in school. This is where I come across Martin Schongauer. I have become very intrested in his work and would like to know where I can find out more information on him and where I might would be able to get copies of his work.

Posted by: Catherine McIntyre on July 31, 2007 05:22 PM
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