The Temptation of Saint Anthony

One of the things I like to meditate on is: what is keeping me from being a saint?

I mean, seriously: what is keeping me from being a saint?

Because when you look at the life of Christ, you see perfection in itself, and that can be a bit daunting, if I am completely honest. Yes, I will follow Him, as He commanded me to do, and model my actions after His commands so as to become more fully the Body of Christ. But no, I can never be perfect and I require His Grace for Heaven. There is too much about me that is inherently sinful, even if my actions are pure: my thoughts, my omissions, and all the little things that happen on a day-to-day basis that I can’t necessarily control that cause me to sin.

So, I find the example of the saints to be a beautiful thing. Not only did they receive the gift of Heaven, but they did so as sinners, and they help inspire us to look to Jesus and follow Jesus all the more. After all, they all have faced their own particular struggles, and sometimes their struggles mirror our own. Yet, they are examples of how to follow Jesus, despite our propensity to sin.

Take Saint Anthony the Great. He is one of the first great saints that went out into the desert to know and love Jesus, and generally considered the Father of Monasticism in Christianity.

He was born in Lower Egypt in 251. At 18, he sold everything that he owned (which was a modest fortune, as his parents had previously died and left him their property). There, he left for a more ascetic life. At first, he stayed with a small group of hermits, who lived outside the city. There are various tales that associate him with swine; many believe that he was a swineherder for another hermit and there are many artworks that associate him with swine. But after living with other hermits, he went out and faced the wilderness.

There are many legends of the sort of temptations that St. Anthony faced. Some say that the devil tempted him with boredom, laziness, and impure thoughts of women, but he shunned these and prayed instead. Then there are tales of little demons that inflicted St. Anthony and strove to destroy him that way. But they could ultimately not prevail, thanks to the power of God. Another tale spoke about how St. Anthony was attacked by little demons in a cave to the point where other hermits dragged him out, presumably dead. But then he woke up and destroyed the demons with the power of God.

And so, I would like to share with you this artwork which tries its best to visualize sins of the mind and how it can torment us:

The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Joos van Craesbeeck, c. 1650.  Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany. Via
The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Joos van Craesbeeck, c. 1650. Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, Karlsruhe, Germany.

There is… a lot to unpack here. Feel free to click on the picture to expand it!

The first thing you’ve probably noticed is the gigantic human head in the middle of the picture. The head’s eyes are opened wide so that it looks very much alive, and its mouth is open in what appears to be a scream of horror. And yet, despite the realism of the head, there is something wrong with it. Demons in the guise of strange creatures climb into the mouth. Then near the forehead, demons force open the forehead, and we can peer inside, seeing someone draw a portrait inside while the others seem to chat.

Then the demons! You’ll notice that the demons are portrayed as hybrids of animals and other creatures that look strange together. The reason for this? It’s to emphasize the disordered nature of sin. The creatures of creation are good, and God said so. But, to see strange hybrids of these creatures, such as a slug with wings or lizards with dog heads, or humans with beaks… that is disordered. That is not right. We look at these sorts of pictures with its wild display of strange animal creatures, and it highlights the unnaturalness of the creatures.

In the same way, sin is an unnatural thing. It is not a gift from God. It didn’t exist in the original creation. Instead, it first came as a temptation of the devil. And the devil can’t create things: he can only distort. Therefore, the images of the demons are not anything original, but rather twisted creatures that are so distorted and perverse that they don’t seem to imitate anything anymore. Thus it is with sin.

Then you’ll notice that there is a strange fixation on water. St. Anthony lived in the desert, where water was probably scarce. So the demons tempt him water. To the right, you’ll notice that there is a large body of water that is right of the giant human head. But, on that water, there are demons coming in row boats, coming towards the head and climbing inside. They are using this temptation as a way to get inside of the head and infiltrate it.

And then… St. Anthony. He is to the right of the picture, eying a woman next to him with suspicion. He has a front row seat to all that is before him, from the demons that prance around to the head. Behind him, a flask of water dribbles out in the earth, yet another water reference, while chaos is all around him. And yet, he sits with scripture in his lap, doing his best to meditate, even with everything going on.

As chaos fills our own lives, let us look to St. Anthony as an example to avoid whatever temptation we face in our own lives.

St. Anthony, pray for us!

Karina Tabone

Karina Tabone is a wife, mother of four, author, blogger, and lover of Christian artwork. She's the author of the Illustrated Rosary series, which pairs every prayer of the Rosary with beautiful religious artwork. She likes also milkshakes, sunshine, and mystery novels. Follow her on Twitter at @illustr_prayer.

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