By Anne Leader
17 January is the feast day of St. Anthony Abbot, who is revered as the founder of Christian monasticism in the east. The first biography of Anthony was written in Greek, which tells us that Anthony was born in the mid-third century in Coma, an Egyptian village near Heracleopolis Magna, but was made popular through the Golden Legend by Fra Jacopo da Voragine. Like many Christian saints, Anthony was born to wealthy parents but decided to pursue an ascetic life in emulation of the Jesus and his apostles. Thus, he gave away his inheritance and property and devoted himself to prayer and spiritual exercises including celibacy, fasting, and prayer. At age 35, Anthony withdrew to the mountain of Der el Mecum, then known as Pispir, where he sought solitude as a hermit and refused visitors. Over time, a number of followers settled in caves and huts nearby, which inspired Anthony to develop a code for living together as a monastic community, influential for St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism.
Anthony was famed for his wisdom and advice, and statements attributed to him form the core of Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which was hugely popular in Italy, especially in the early Renaissance. Anthony frequently appears in Italian altarpieces alongside other saints, and numerous Italian artists have portrayed events from his life, notably the temptations he faced as he pursued his religious calling. Among these seductions were a shining mass of gold and devils who taunted and tortured the saint. During at least one torment, Anthony saw a vision of Jesus, inspiring him not to succumb to physical pain or deprivation. Another popular story is that of Anthony and his visit to St. Paul the Hermit, and the two are frequently shown together. Another anecdote recounts how a centaur, a mythological beast half horse, half man, helped Anthony find Paul in the wilderness. Anthony is recognizable by his rustic, hooded habit and a Tau-shaped cross. He is often accompanied by a small, black pig in reference to the Hospitallers of St. Anthony, a European monastic order that raised swine to support their charitable works.
Giovanni di Nicola da Pisa, St Anthony Abbot, c. 1350, egg tempera and gold leaf on wood, National Gallery, London
Fra Filippo Lippi, St Anthony Abbot, 1456-58, tempera on wood, panel from a triptych, Museum of Art, Cleveland, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1964.150.2
Fra Angelico, Saint Anthony the Abbot Shunning the Mass of Gold, c. 1435-40, tempera and gold leaf on panel, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection, 44.550
Sassetta, St Anthony the Hermit Tortured by the Devils, 1423, panel, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena
Bernardino Parenzano, Temptations of St Anthony, c. 1494, panel, Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome
Annibale Carracci, Christ Appearing to St Anthony Abbot, 1597-98, oil on copper, National Gallery, London
Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, St Anthony Abbot and St Paul, c. 1515, oil on canvas, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice
Francesco Guarino, St Anthony Abbot and the Centaur, 1642, oil on canvas, private collection
Bicci di Lorenzo, St Anthony Abbot and the Apostle St James the Greater, c. 1430, tempera and gold on wood panel, private collection
Pisanello, The Virgin and Child with Sts Anthony Abbot and George, about 1435-41, egg tempera on poplar, National Gallery, London