July 24, 2019

Temptation of St Anthony

        Any exploration of European art history ends up providing a crash course in Catholic saints and their iconography.  Today we’re looking at the Temptation of St Anthony, and we’re looking at it because of the marvelous monsters featured therein.  According to the Golden Legend and other hagiographies, St Anthony had a number of run-ins with demons while he was hanging out in the desert.  He was tempted by demons in the form of beautiful women, tormented by demon attacks on the ground, and ambushed by demons in mid-air.  These various episodes, both separately and combined, all tend to be titled “The Temptation of St Anthony,” although I think the alternate titles “Trial” or “Tribulation” make more sense.  In any case, it was a popular subject in medieval and renaissance art.
        First up, the famous engraving by Martin Schongauer, which is probably both Schongauer’s most influential piece, and the most influential version of St  Anthony’s Temptation.  You can see why this theme would be popular: it’s just so much fun!  The demons are wacky, grotesque, dementedly creative, with
wings and horns and tails, spikes here, fur there, scales on the other… It’s not often an artist of serious religious themes gets to let his imagination run so wild.  And there’s Anthony, just looking resigned: “Oh bother.  Demons again.”
        With Schongauer’s image as our baseline, let’s get back to the wood block prints.  Lucas Cranach the Elder’s is not as appealing a composition with its frenetic cluttering, but a close look at the individual elements provides plenty of delight.  How about the bottom monster with the head of a boar, the wings of a beetle, and the hindquarters of a lizard?  What about the frill-faced beast in the center top that looks more like a smug cat than a terrifying demon?  That does, of course, lead me to wonder to what extent the artists did intend their monsters to be frightening.  Did original viewers enjoy these prints for the frisson of fear as people today enjoy horror movies?  Or did they, like me, find the creatures as wonderful and amusing as scary?
        This epic scene by Jan Wellens de Cock is one that includes many episodes from the saint’s life in a single image.  In the middle of the bottom Anthony is being visited by a lovely noblewoman whose true identity is betrayed by her clawed foot peeking out from the hem of her gown.  The mid-air demon attack is also portrayed, in the upper left quadrant, and throughout the picture strange little imps can be seen converging on poor Anthony.  (Don’t worry; he withstands them all!)  The level of detail is quite impressive and I love the wonderful scenery as well as the monsters.  My favorite creature is the strange flying thing in the far upper left.
        And finally a smaller wood block print by Hans Weiditz which was an illustration in a book rather than the larger ones above, which were printed as individual sheets.  Again, it’s pretty busy, but the various demons have a marvelous array of features, especially the one in the lower right with a clawed duckfoot, insect wings, an arrow-pointed tongue, and a furry face.  I can’t help being most taken by the creature in the upper left, however, who pauses in his temptation of Anthony to look thoughtfully out at the viewer.  Does the artist want it to be a little more sympathetic, or are we being reminded that not all devils appear so evil?
        You may be wondering what’s the significance of all these crazy monsters.   Frankly, cool wood block prints is significance enough, but as it happens, there’s more.  As someone who, unlike the medieval and renaissance audiences of these pieces, has no fear of actual monstrous demons, but who instead enjoys fantastical creatures, these are a treasure trove of strange and marvelous beasties.  I will share in a future post something I did under their hopefully-not-too-demonic inspiration.

[Pictures: The Temptation of Saint Anthony, engraving by Martin Schongauer, 1470-5 (Image from Art Institute of Chicago);
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1506 (Image from Art Institute of Chicago);
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, woodcut by Jan Wellens de Cock, 1522 (Image from National  Gallery of Art);
The temptation of St Antony, woodcut by Hans Weiditz, c 1520-5 (Image from The British Museum).]


Sue Bursztynski said...

Some delightful pieces here! I’m guessing that if I had been an artist in those days, required to stick to religious themes, I’d grab the chance to get creative, as these artists have. You can see they have had fun.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Agreed! And while I am not constrained in my subject matter as renaissance artists may have been, I'll soon post the piece I did under the inspiration of these wild and wacky monsters.