The Many Temptations of St. Anthony

This article is a compilation of artworks on a single theme: ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony,’ a narrative that has been imaginatively rendered by visual artists – from Bosch to Dalí – for centuries.

According to Time, “In the 3rd Century, Saint Anthony the Egyptian renounced all worldly joys, went off into the Arabian Desert to live the life of a hermit. He had a terrible time of it. Often he would glance up from his prayers to see Satan hovering before him in the gloom of his abandoned fort. And Satan was hard to recognize; usually he looked like the things Anthony missed most.”

In this narrative, St. Anthony’s faith triumphs over the temptations and horrors of sin and evil (of course, the paintings focus on the conflict, not the victory). This theme is common across Eastern and Western cultures. In Buddhist mythology, Siddhartha meditates under the Bodhi tree before attaining Enlightenment. During his meditation, he is tempted by the demon Mara and accompanying visions of evil and lust. Siddhartha’s spiritual peace is strong enough to withstand the temptations, and so he transforms into the enlightened Buddha. Same story! If you take scholar Joseph Campbell’s advice to view the cultures of the world with an “unprejudiced eye,” you will see that all cultures reveal the same truths about the human experience. Christ’s ascension provides the same spiritual symbolism as the Buddha’s Enlightenment, St. Anthony’s test was Siddhartha’s test, and so on.

This visual motifs of St. Anthony’s tale has inspired countless artists to draw their worst nightmares. They populated their paintings with the creepiest, crawliest creatures they could conjure. The Surrealists – namely Dalí and Ernst – specialized in nightmares and so they really sunk their teeth in. All artworks are titled The Temptation of St. Anthony. Enjoy.

Matthias Grünewald, 1512-16 (image detail)

Matthias Grünewald, 1512-16 (image detail)

Pieter Huys, 1547

Pieter Huys, 1547

Salvator Rosa, 1645

Salvator Rosa, 1645

Martin Schongauer, 1470

Martin Schongauer, 1470

“According to his biographer, the rigorous asceticism practised by St Anthony in the Egyptian desert allowed him to levitate in the air, where he was attacked by devils trying to beat him to the ground. The imaginative power with which Schongauer interpreted their assault made this engraving famous throughout Europe.” (quote from The British Museum)

Hieronymous Bosch, circa 1505 (detail of triptych)
Hieronymous Bosch, circa 1505 (detail of triptych)
Henri Fantin-Latour
Henri Fantin-Latour
Artist Unknown

Joos van Craesbeeck

Max Ernst, 1945
Max Ernst, 1945

Max Ernst entered this piece into a competition on the theme. His competitors included 12 “apostles of Modern Art,” including Dali, but Ernst’s painting won. His prize was $3,000. (see Time magazine: ‘Temptations of St. Anthony’) Ernst’s painting shows St. Anthony’s orifices being invaded by creatures that have originated from a plant-animal metamorphosis (see the thorny arms and features like roots and prickly barbs). The temptations of the flesh derive from nature, not from the spirit. Of his depiction, Ernst said, “Shrieking for help and light across the stagnant water of his dark, sick mind, St. Antony receives as an answer the echo of his fears: the laughter of the monsters created by his visions.”

Salvador Dalí, 1946
Salvador Dalí, 1946

The temptations in Dalí’s painting arrive in the form of a nightmarish parade. Lust is represented by a nude woman balanced precariously on a teetering pedestal. The spider-legged elephants are topped with phallic towers and some sort of ornate sex palace. But it appears as though St. Anthony’s faith is about to topple them all.

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Comments

  1. J. C. Todd says

    Have you discovered the artist of the Temptation of St. Anthony head floating in the delta that’s labeled “artist unknown” on this page?

    Visually it references Orpheus’s head floating singing songs of all the heartbreak of the world after he could resist turning to see if Euridyce was following him out of Hades. But there’s no lyre in the painting on this site and the references are sins of the flesh and mind rather than heartbreak.

    Anyway, I’d like to know the painter.

  2. says

    Sorry J.C., but I still don’t know whose work that is! Thanks for your Orpheus tale though; I’d never heard that story/theme before.

  3. berlusconidiota says

    Joos van Craesbeeck Joos van Craesbeeck Joos van Craesbeeck Joos van Craesbeeck
    Joos van Craesbeeck Joos van Craesbeeck Joos van Craesbeeck Joos van Craesbeeck

  4. Very Impressed says

    Has anyone noticed how the last painting (by Dali) is the basis for a painting in the book accompanying Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds?

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