Temptation of Saint Anthony in visual arts  

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"[Demons] taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things."--Life of Antony

"Several painters have handled a subject of this kind, with a view of assembling as many horrid phantoms as their imagination could suggest; but all the designs I have chanced to meet of the temptation of St. Anthony were rather a sort of odd, wild grotesques, than anything capable of producing a serious passion. In all these subjects poetry is very happy. Its apparitions, its chimeras, its harpies, its allegorical figures, are grand and affecting; and though Virgil’s Fame and Homer’s Discord are obscure, they are magnificent figures. These figures in painting would be clear enough, but I fear they might become ridiculous." --A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) by Edmund Burke

"A unique painter in the Flemish tradition was Hieronymus Bosch (about 1450-1516). In his ideology medieval fantasy and grotesquerie reached a zenith. But his inexhaustible, audacious fantasy, which invented all kinds of diabolical creatures, found expression in clear, skillfully organized pictorial forms. Usually a landscape or an architectural framework, receding into space, provided the setting for figures that show Northern realism in detail and Gothic linealism in the crisp edges of the color areas, strongly opposed in value. All this is evident in any of his versions of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a subject he painted frequently." --Gardner's Art Through the Ages (1926) by Helen Gardner

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The Temptation (or Temptations) of St. Anthony is a popular theme in the history of Western art. Many visual artists have depicted these incidents from the life of Saint Anthony as told in Life of Antony.

Some of the stories of the demons and temptations that Saint Anthony is reported to have faced are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an opportunity and pretext for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre fantasies. Emphasis on these stories, however, did not really begin until the Middle Ages, when the psychology of the individual became a greater interest.



10th century

The subject of Saint Anthony was first presented in the 10th century at Italian fresco paintings. In the European Middle Ages one can watch an accumulation of the theme in book illumination and later in German woodcuts.

Middle Ages

About 1500 originated the famous prints and paintings of Martin Schöngauer (ca. 1490), Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1505) and Matthias Grünewald (ca. 1510).

17th century

19th century

20th century and contemporary art


Modern Spanish painter Salvador Dalí drew a great deal of inspiration from Bosch's work, which had many of the features that acted as precursors to Dalí's own surrealism. Dalí's version depicts St. Anthony resisting temptations associated with a spider-legged horse and elephants. The "space elephants," distorted offspring of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's elephant and obelisk, are a motif in Dalí's work.

Notable versions of the subject

See also

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