Many of us reach a point in our lives where we struggle with becoming the moral person we know we can be. We intend to improve our moral character, but we’re bombarded by the heaviest of burdens whenever we try.
Many of us, unable to endure the suffering of this struggle, settle or give up. We tell ourselves that we are who we are, and we relax our efforts to be our best selves. Some of us, however, like St. Anthony, endure the burden and transform into better versions of ourselves.
St. Anthony is considered the father of organized Christian monasticism. At around the age of 20, Anthony devoted himself to an ascetic life of isolation in the mountains. During his time there, he was tormented repeatedly by seductive and devilish visions and creatures.
Sometimes, through instilling fear, the demons appeared as wild beasts in the hope that Anthony that would give up his ascetic practice, give up his love of God. He may have been tempted to take the easy way out. Other times, demons would simply beat him to the point of death.
But Anthony’s torments weren’t always so aggressive. Sometimes, the devil would appear to him as a beautiful woman to tempt lust. Other times, he would conjure riches to tempt Anthony’s greed.
On one occasion, the tortured Anthony remained unafraid and steadfast while demons attacked his dwelling. At the extreme of his suffering, he saw heaven open up, and a ray of light obliterated the demons.
Anthony dealt with these temptations successfully and overcame them through constant prayer and penance. He would later leave his solitude to teach his way of spiritual purity and freedom from temptation.
The Isenheim Altarpiece and the Temptation of St. Anthony
The Isenheim Altarpiece was created by Niclaus of Haguenau and Mathias Grünewald between 1512 and 1516—around the same time that Raphael was painting at the Vatican—for the Antonite order at the Isenheim monastery. Niclaus of Haguenau created the sculpted portion, and Grünewald painted the panels.
The Isenheim Altarpiece was located in the monastery’s hospital, where monks of the Antonite order helped victims of St. Anthony’s Fire, an illness common in the Middle Ages and caused by the fungus ergot in contaminated rye flour. The images of St. Anthony served as inspiration for those who suffered at the hospital.
Two painted panels from the innermost register of the altarpiece illustrate parts of St. Anthony’s life. We will look at the right panel, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” which depicts Anthony’s torments.
The scene that Grünewald interpreted in his painting is a scene described in the “Vita B. Antonii,” which is St. Anthony’s biography. The scene tells of demons’ assault on Anthony, Anthony’s endurance, and his communication with the divine.
Georg Scheja, in his book “The Isenheim Altarpiece,” relays to us this scene from Anthony’s biography:
“The all-out terrorist attack on Anthony took place at the very start of his career in the desert. It was then that ‘the Master’ stood aside to watch how His saint comported himself and thereafter endowed him with new strength.
“The entire place swarmed with apparitions of all sorts of wild beasts which pressed him hard. He, however, ‘although feeling an ever more frightful pain throughout his body, nevertheless lay there unafraid and still vigilant in spirit.’ In that dire moment he suddenly saw Heaven open itself and a ray of light stream down which caused the demons to vanish…”
Christ then says to Anthony:
“‘Anthony, I was here, but I bided my time and observed your struggle. Because you held your ground and did not give in, so shall I make you a helper-in-need at all times, and it should be that your name will be celebrated in all places.’
“Thereupon Anthony raised himself up and ‘so much had he been given new strength that he felt himself to possess more power than that which he had had before.’”
‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’
In Grünewald’s painting, a calm Anthony is on the ground at the bottom of the composition. He wears a blue cloak over a red shirt, and his white hair and beard reveal his age.
Fantastical demon hybrids confront Anthony on all sides. In front of him, at the right of the composition, a bird-headed demon attacks him with a stick. Behind that one, an orange demon also raises a stick to attack Anthony.
Behind him, to the left of the composition, one demon with a dragon face and horns pulls at his cloak while another, which is partially obscured, pulls his hair.
At the bottom of the composition, two demons seem to sit idly by. The armadillo-like monster turns away from Anthony, while, at the bottom left-hand corner of the composition, the human-like one has a sickly demeanor and suffers from boils on its body. It faces Anthony, but its head looks toward the sky.
Where it looks, however, leads us up toward the top of the composition. As we move up, we see demons in the background watching Anthony’s torment. Some are fighting something off in the distance to the right. To the left is Anthony’s hut, which the demons have destroyed.
In the sky, we can see dark figures battling light ones. And at the very top left of the composition, the heavens open and reveal the Divine One who has come to aid Anthony.
Fearlessly Overcoming Evil
Anthony has a goal, and his goal is to get close to God and God’s love. The demons have a plan as well: to make Anthony give up his endeavor. These demons are doomed to fail because Anthony does not endure his torments alone.
But Anthony must prove his resolve first. He must prove that he is worthy in the eyes of the divine before divine aid is granted. This requires that Anthony sit and calmly endure. Despite Anthony’s being attacked by an array of demons from all sides, Grünewald depicts him in a calm state with no expression of pain or worry.
Often, many of us who believe in the divine ask to be relieved of problems without actually living our lives according to the divine’s moral requirements. Some of us go as far as to ask the divine to bless us with worldly gifts, as if we are in the position to issue orders to the heavens.
But examples like St. Anthony’s remind us that there is a moral requirement for divine intervention. Must we first overcome our temptations and prove ourselves worthy before the heavens open up and aid our world?
Do we first need to turn within to confront the darkness that haunts our spirits before heaven shines its light on and destroys that darkness? How much are we willing to endure to truly cultivate love of the divine and fearlessness in the face of evil?
The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).