This study looks at St Anthony Abbot, also known as St Anthony of Egypt
and St Anthony the Great (c251 – 356). He is not to be confused with
the much later St Anthony of
Padua; many ‘San Antonio’ churches in Italy are dedicated to him
rather than 'San Antonio Abate’.
Anthony had the benefit of an enthusiastic biographer, Athanasius
of Alexandria, and much of the information on Anthony in this study is
based on this. It is sometimes suggested that Athanasius was more spin
doctor than impartial biographer, but that was very much the norm at the
time; the message had to be loud and clear.
Athanasius tells us
that Anthony was born in 251 in Cooma, in Lower Egypt. His parents were
wealthy, and when they died Anthony, then aged 18, was left with the
estate and the charge of his younger sister.
Sometime later, when
Anthony was in his early thirties, he sold his property, gave his
money to the poor and consigned his unmarried sister to a convent. (Her
views on this are not recorded by Athanasius).
This impulse came from a church reading of Mathew 19 v 21: 'Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast,
and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come
and follow me.’ Anthony then set off into the desert to begin a
solitary and austere life as a hermit.
in A History of Christianity points out that setting off into the
Desert is a relatively easy thing to do in Egypt, and that others had
done this before Anthony. Indeed, Anthony began to find that the
solitude he craved was not that easy to find. Not all of those escaping
to the desert did so for religious reasons, though persecution under
Diocletian was a strong motive. Others fled to avoid paying tax – tax
exiles are nothing new.
Anthony is sometimes
described as the father of monasticism, but the communities of hermits
that began to flourish in Egypt, many around Anthony, bore
little resemblance to what we think of as a monastery.
steadily grew, both as a spiritual leader and a healer.
This attention led him to seek isolation further and further in
the desert. He died at an advanced age and was buried by trusted friends
in a secret location. Not that secret, sadly, for within a few years his
(supposed) remains were dug up and transported to Alexandria, and later,
St Anthony in Art
St. Anthony has inspired some of the greatest works of European
painting, largely thanks to Athanasius. His very readable biography
includes highly imaginative accounts of the temptations and torments
suffered by Anthony in the desert, and artists such as Bosch, Grunwald and
Schongauer have made the most of them. These themes do tend to dominate,
though as we shall see other aspects of Anthony’s life do play their
part. Reading Athanasius, one can find many missed opportunities for
artists, such as the dramatic tales of healing the sick. One story I
particularly like is an account of Anthony crossing a river full of
hungry crocodiles unscathed. Oh, Hieronymus, why didn’t you paint that
Sources and references
Athanasius is readily available in translation on the web:
As also are versions of the Golden Legend: this is the Caxton
A really good modern translation is by William Granger Ryan.
A history of Christianity Diarmaid MacCullough (Penguin
Sienese Painting Timothy Hyman (Thames and Hudson)