Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Life of St Anthony the Abbot in a Sienese Altarpiece

One of the most beautiful depictions of episodes from the life of St Anthony the Abbot, whose feast is kept today, is a series of eight panels from an altarpiece painted in Siena sometime between 1425-50. The anonymous artist, to whom many other paintings are attributed, is referred to as the Master of the Osservanza, the name of a church on the outskirts of the city where he worked. (“Osservanza” was the common term for a group of Franciscans who sought to return to the observance of the most primitive and austere form of the Rule of St Francis.) Various theories have been proposed as to the altarpiece’s commission and destination; the depiction of St Anthony in a black habit may suggest that it was originally made for an Augustinian church, an hypothesis supported by the fact that the reading of St Athanasius’ Life of Anthony was a decisive moment in St Augustine’s conversion. The altarpiece was later broken up, and the different panels are now scattered through various museums, which will be noted in the individual explanations of each one. (All images are in the public domain in the United States; taken from this Wikimedia Commons page unless otherwise noted.)

The first panel is set inside the cathedral of Siena. On the right side, St Anthony is shown very young, kneeling in prayer at the high altar. (The artist gives us a glimpse of one of the crown jewels of Sienese art, the famous Maestà of Duccio di Buoninsegna.) On the left side, an older Anthony, richly dressed like a wealthy man of the 15th century, is attending Mass; as recounted by St Athanasius, his decision to become a monk was inspired by hearing at Mass the words of the Gospel (Matt. 19, 21), as if they were being spoken to himself, “If thou would be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast, and give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” (We cannot assume that every depiction of the liturgy in the art of this period is attempting to be strictly accurate, but note the blue chasuble and the single candle on the altar. – This panel is now in the Berlin Gemälde-Gallerie.)
St Anthony sells his possessions and distributes the money to the poor. The building which dominates the composition is typical of Sienese Gothic architecture; many similar structures can still be seen there to this day. Over the Saint’s head, in the tympanum of the building’s door, is the crest of a prominent family, the Martinozzi; a member of this family, a Franciscan named Giovanni, was martyred for the Faith in 1345 in Egypt, St Anthony’s native country. This would seem to suggest that it was commissioned by them, but there are strong arguments to the contrary. (See Painting in Renaissance Siena, by Christiansen, Kanter and Strehlke, the catalog of a show held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988, p. 105. – This panel and the following one are now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.)
After living in a monastery for several years, and overcoming many temptations, St Anthony decides to depart to a more isolated place in the desert, and live as a hermit; here, he is seen receiving the blessing of one of the monks. One of the responsories of his proper Office describes this first phase of his monastic life as follows: R. The most blessed man went to the cells of the monks, paying close attention of the lives of the fathers, and the virtues of each one, * and he bore great fruit, like the bees who bring forth honey after tasting (many) flowers. V. Eagerly did he follow the temperance of this fellow, the humility of that one, the patience of another. And he bore...
St Anthony is tempted by a devil, who appears to him in the guise of a woman. Note that the Saint is now considerably older than he was in the previous panel; the devil is identified as such by the bat wings on its back. (This panel and the following one are now in the Yale Univ. Art Gallery; the first image of these two was downloaded from their website.)
St Athanasius tells of the many times when St Anthony struggled against devils, not only by resisting temptations, but also suffering bodily harm that they were permitted to inflict upon him. On one such occasion, “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, here depicted in the background. (Life of Anthony 8 and 9) 
On another occasion, St Anthony was tempted by a heap of gold which the devil left by the side of the road where he was passing. This was originally painted in real gold leaf that was later scraped off, leaving the Saint to confront a completely harmless-looking rabbit. (This panel is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.)
The seventh panel shows St Anthony’s dealings with St Paul the First Hermit, which I described two days ago in an article for the feast day of the latter. At the upper left, St Anthony sets out to find St Paul; on the right, slightly lower, he is guided on his way by a centaur; and at the bottom, the two Saints embrace. At the very top in the middle is depicted the same rose-colored church seen in the previous panel, to indicate that Anthony has journeyed far into the desert to find Paul. (This panel and the following are now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., from which this image was downloaded.)
The final panel depicts St Anthony’s funeral, specifically, the Absolution at the catafalque, which is being done exactly as in the traditional Roman Rite. The catalog cited above notes that the arrangement of the scene, with one person kneeling on one side of the bier, and the rest gathered around in a semi-circle, is reminiscent of several Renaissance depictions of the funeral of St Francis. The pink and black stripes on the church’s walls are very typically Sienese.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: