Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Feast of St Anthony the Abbot

St Athanasius of Alexandria is best known as the great champion of the Nicene Faith, for which he was exiled five times over the course of an episcopate of 45 years (328-373); for his witness to the truth of the Incarnation, and his important writings on the subject, he is honored as a Doctor of the Church. But it was also he who brought to the attention of the West the ascetic and anchoretic life, a phenomenon well-established in his native Egypt by the early fourth-century, but at that point just emerging in the West. This was done by writing the Life of St Anthony of Egypt, who is often called “the Abbot” to distinguish him from his later namesake, St Anthony of Padua; in the East he is simply “Anthony the Great.” Of this Life, which was to have an enormous influence in the Church, both East and West, it might well be said what St Thomas Aquinas said about St Bonaventure writing the life of St Francis: “Let us leave the saint to work for the saint.”

St Anthony was not the first monk or hermit, as Athanasius’ Life makes quite clear; and indeed, the Church honors a saint named Paul with the title “the First Hermit.” Anthony was ninety years old, and had been living as an ascetic for over 70 years, before he first met Paul, shortly before the latter’s death at the age of 113. Paul’s feast day was long kept on January 10th, exactly a week before that of Anthony, to symbolize that he preceded him in the ascetic life. (It was later moved to January 15.) Anthony also had as a contemporary St Pachomius, who is held in particular honor in the East as the founder of the cenobitic life, and the author of an important monastic rule. Nevertheless, Anthony may rightly be called the Father of Monasticism in the East, as St Benedict is in the West; for it was by his example, more than any other, that so many men and women of his own time and subsequent eras were inspired to embrace the monastic life.

A 19th-century Coptic icon of Ss Anthony the Abbot and Paul the First Hermit. (image from  wikimedia commons.)
In the Confessions, St Augustine writes that two officials of the imperial court, (then at Trier, where Athanasius passed his first exile), on reading the life of Anthony, renounced their position to become monks, the one saying to the other, “ ‘Now I have broken loose from those hopes of ours (for preferment in the court), and am resolved to serve God; and this I begin upon, from this hour, in this place. If thou like not to imitate me, oppose me not.’ The other answered, he would cleave to him, and be his fellow in so great a reward, so great a service.” (Book 8.15) Shortly thereafter, in the famous episode where Augustine, torn about how to free himself of his past sins and follow God, hears children singing “Take up, read; take up, read”, he takes up the epistles of St Paul and reads, “ ‘Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities, not in contention and envy: But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in its concupiscences.’ (Rom. 13, 13-14) No further would I read; nor was there need to: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” But it was the life of St Anthony that convinced him that “Take up, read,” meant to take up the Bible and read it, since Anthony, “coming in (to a church) during the reading of the Gospel, received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him, ‘Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me.’ (Matthew 19, 21) And by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee.” (Book 8, 29)

St Athanasius tells of many times when St Anthony struggled against devils, both by resisting temptations, and suffering bodily harm that the devil was permitted to inflict upon him. On one such occasion, early in his life as an ascetic, “a multitude of demons … so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain.” He was discovered unconscious by the local villagers, who thought him dead, and brought him to their church. On recovering, he fearlessly returned to the place where he had been tormented, and
after he had prayed, he said with a shout, ‘Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.’ … But the enemy, who hates good, marveling that … he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, … 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, …. But Antony … said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord has made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ … So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth upon him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.” (Life of Anthony 8 and 9)
This passage and others of a similar vein in Athanasius’ Life have provided artists with the opportunity to indulge their strangest fantasies in depicting the demons who attack Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch, not surprisingly, painted a complete triptych on the subject, which was also tackled (also not surprisingly) by Salvador Dalí.

Hieronymous Bosch, Triptych of the Temptations of St Anthony, 1505-06; Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon
Salvador Dalí, The Temptation of St Anthony, 1946; Royal Museums of the Fine Arts, Brussels, Belgium.
The art historian Giorgio Vasari records that Michelangelo, while still a young apprentice in the school of Domenico Ghirlandaio, copied the same subject as a painting from an earlier engraving by the German artist Martin Schongauer. A painting of The Torments of St Anthony now in the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, is indisputably of the right period and school, but the debate as to whether it is indeed the one done by Michelangelo will probably never be resolved to the satisfaction of all art historians.

On the left, the original engraving by Martin Schongauer, ca. 1475, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; on the right, the painting attributed to Michelangelo, ca. 1487.
Anthony was also tempted on various occasions by lust, by laziness and by riches. The last of these was depicted by the anonymous painter now called the Master of the Osservanza, but the heap of gold lying by the side of road, originally painted in gold leaf, was later scraped off, leaving Anthony to confront an altogether non-demonic looking rabbit.


When St Anthony went to visit St Paul the First Hermit, as recorded in the latter’s biography written by St Jerome, they greeted each other by name as they met, though they had never seen each other before. A crow then brought them a full loaf of bread, at which Paul said to Anthony, “for sixty years I have daily received (from the crow) half a loaf of bread; now at thy coming, Christ has doubled the provision for his soldiers.” Perhaps inspired by the similarity between this episode and the crows that brought food to the Prophet Elijah (3 Kings 17), the Byzantine Liturgy explicitly compares Anthony to Elijah in the dismissal hymn (apolytikion) of Vespers on his feast day.
You imitated the zealous Elias by your life, you followed the Baptist by straight paths, our Father Anthony; you became the founder of the desert and strengthened the whole world by your prayers. And so intercede with Christ God that our souls may be saved.
Throughout the Middle Ages, St Anthony was also venerated as the patron Saint against various skin diseases, such as erysipelas and ergotism, some of which are still called “St Anthony’s fire” or “holy fire” in places. A commonly used medieval prayer of his Mass was as follows.
Deus, qui concedis obtentu beati Antonii Confessoris tui, morbidum ignem extingui, et membris aegris refrigeria praestari: fac nos, quaesumus, ipsius meritis et precibus, a gehennae incendiis liberatos, integros mente et corpore tibi feliciter presentari.
God, who grantest by the protection of Thy blessed Confessor Anthony that the fire of illness be extinguished, and refreshment given to sickly members; we ask that by his merits and prayers, we may be delivered from the fires of hell, and happily presented to the Thee, sound in mind and body.

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