Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Saint, Demons and Art

As an All Saints Day special (coinciding with the Halloween celebration), let me tell you of a saint whose story, about his torment by the devil, has been a subject of interest to many renowned artists.

Saint Anthony, also known as Anthony the Great, was born in Egypt in 251 A.D. to a wealthy family. His parents died of illness and was left in the care of his unmarried sister when he was 18. At age 34 he decided to follow the words of Christ who said, "If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come follow Me." So that he did and lived as a hermit.

For a time he lived 13 years in the most rugged part of the Egyptian desert, completely cut off from civilization. There the devil afflicted him with boredom, laziness, and phantoms of women, silver and gold, which he overcame by the power of prayer. Of course the devil doesn't give up that easily. When he was hiding in a cave he was beaten to death by a gang of demons. But his life didn't end there. He was revived and he continued to live an astonishing ascetic life until it was time for him to go at the age 105.

The story of his torment in the desert has caught the imagination of many artist, from the renaissance up to the 21st century, each with his own interpretation of the horrifying scene and of how demons look like. Here are a few faves. Click for a larger view.

Above is Michelangelo's rendition of an engraving by Martin Schongauer.

This engraving is by Lucas Granach the Elder.

This is one of a pair of paintings by Matthias Grunewald. It seems that in the old world, demons are perceived as beings that are a mash-up of different animals.

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