Saint Anthony

Introduction and Sources

Which Anthony?

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.

Fresco of St Athanasius.
Mar Musa monastery, Syria


   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.

  Diarmaid  McCullouch 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.  
   Anthony’s fame 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, further.

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 one? 

Sources and references

Athanasius is readily available in translation on the web:

As also are versions of the Golden Legend: this is the Caxton version

A really good modern translation is by William Granger Ryan.

A history of Christianity  Diarmaid MacCullough (Penguin books) 
Sienese Painting Timothy Hyman (Thames and Hudson)

St Anthony Index




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