Anthony the Abbot, St. (praiseworthy, priceless) (251–356) In Christian legend, patron saint of basket makers. Invoked against erysipelas (or St. Anthony’s fire), an acute local inflammation of the skin. Feast, 17 January. St. Anthony was among the first “desert fathers” of the Christian Church.
The list includes such saints as Pachomius, Simeon Stylites, Hilarion, and Jerome. His life, written in the fourth century by St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, is believed to be the first example of an extended, or full-length, biography of a saint.
It set the style for the saints’ lives that were written later. It tells of numerous miracles and the proverbial combat with the devil, which became a standard literary device in writing about the lives of the saints. Born in Alexandria, Anthony was an orphan. He divided his inheritance with his sister, sold his portion, and went to live among the hermits in the desert.
But as St. Athanasius writes, “the devil, the envier and enemy of all good, could not bear to see such a purpose in so young a man” and sent many temptations to the saint. The devil “would assume by night the form and imitate the deportment of a woman, to tempt Anthony.” The saint, however, overcame all of the sensual assaults. The devil then assumed the forms of various monsters, serpents, and poisonous animals to torment Anthony. Again, the saint overcame them.
After Anthony had lived for 75 years in the desert, he had a vision of St. Paul the Hermit, who had been living in penance for 90 years. So Anthony set out across the desert. After journeying several days and meeting on the way a centaur and a satyr, he came at last to a cave of rocks where St. Paul the Hermit lived beside a stream and a palm tree. The two men embraced. While they were talking, a raven came, bringing a loaf of bread in its beak.
St. Paul said the raven had come every day for the last 60 years, but that day the portion of bread was doubled. St. Paul asked Anthony to fetch a special cloak, for he was about to die and wished to be buried in it. Anthony set out to get the cloak (it was in a monastery some distance away), but as he went he had a vision of St. Paul ascending to heaven. When he returned to the cave, he found St. Paul dead. Anthony had no strength to dig a grave, but two lions came and helped him.
St. Anthony died 14 years later and was buried secretly, according to his wish. St. Anthony is portrayed as a very old man, in his monk’s habit, often with a crutch and an asperges or a bell to exorcise demons; a pig, the ancient symbol of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Set; and a Tau cross. Perhaps the most striking paintings of the saint’s life were done by Mathias Grünewald in his Isenheim altarpiece.
In The Temptation of St. Anthony, one of the panels of the altarpiece, the saint is shown assaulted by demons and with the rotted body of a man suffering from St. Anthony’s fire. Another panel of the altarpiece, The Meeting of St. Anthony and St. Paul the Hermit, portrays the saints awaiting the arrival of the raven with the bread in its beak. The Isenheim altarpiece inspired Paul Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler, based on the life of Mathias Grünewald.
The music from the opera was used by the composer in a symphonic suite, made up of “The Concert of the Angels,” “The Entombment,” and “The Temptation of Saint Anthony.” Gustave Flaubert wrote La Tentation de Sainte Antoine, a prose poem based on the legend of the saint.
Taken from the Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow
Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante