Temptation of Saint Anthony in visual arts

The Temptation of Saint Anthony is an often-repeated subject in the history of art and literature, concerning the supernatural temptation reportedly faced by Saint Anthony the Great during his sojourn in the Egyptian desert. Anthony's temptation is first discussed by Athanasius of Alexandria, Anthony's contemporary, and from then became a popular theme in Western culture.

Matthias Grünewald, inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony, 1512-1516 (oil on panel)

The common medieval subject, included in the Golden Legend and other sources, shows Saint Anthony being tempted or assailed in the desert by demons, whose temptations he resisted; the Temptation of St Anthony (or Trial...) is the more common name of the subject. But strictly there are at least two different episodes deriving from Athanasius's Life of St. Anthony and later versions of the life that may be represented, though all usually have this name. The most common is the temptation, by seductive women and other demonic forms, but the Martin Schongauer composition (copied by Michelangelo) probably shows a later episode where St Anthony, normally flown about the desert supported by angels, was ambushed and attacked in mid-air by devils.[1] Anasthasius describes another episode where the saint was attacked on the ground.


The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1487–88, by the young Michelangelo, copying Martin Schongauer's engraving

The earliest work to depict Saint Anthony being assaulted by demons is a wall painting in the atrium of Santa Maria Antiqua of the 10th century.[2] The subject became especially popular in the late European Middle Ages, from around 1450. The century following saw the most famous depictions in book illumination, prints and paintings. These include the depictions of Martin Schöngauer (ca. 1470), Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1505) and Matthias Grünewald (1512–1516).

In the modern era the theme has been treated by the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí and the French author Gustave Flaubert, who considered his 1874 book The Temptation of Saint Anthony to be his masterwork.

In 1946 the David L. Loew-Albert Lewin film production company held a contest for a painting on the theme of Saint Anthony's Temptation, with the winner to be used in the film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. Various artists produced paintings on this subject, and the contest was won by Max Ernst, whose work was duly shown in the film. However, the most well-known of these paintings is a failed contestant, Salvador Dalí's version.

Notable versions of the subjectEdit

The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Joos van Craesbeeck, c. 1650, clearly recalling the Bosch treatments.


  1. ^ Alan Shestack; Fifteenth century Engravings of Northern Europe; no.37, 1967, National Gallery of Art, Washington(Catalogue), LOC 67-29080
  2. ^ Jean Michel Massing (1984). "Schongauer's 'Tribulations of St Anthony': Its Iconography and Influence on German Art". Print Quarterly. 1 (4): 226. JSTOR 41823641.

External linksEdit