Today is the feast of one of the great founders of the Christian monastic and ascetic tradition, the Egyptian Saint Anthony (250 ca. – 356). In the West, he is often called Anthony the Abbot, to distinguish him from his namesake of Padua; in the East, he is simply “Anthony the Great.” Shortly after his death, St Athanasius (295 ca. – 373), the patriarch of Alexandria, wrote his biography in Greek; within less than 15 years, a priest named Evagrius translated this work into Latin. By means of this translation, Anthony became one of the most popular and influential Saints in the West throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.
He was not the first monk or hermit, as Athanasius makes quite clear; and indeed, the Church honors a saint named Paul with the title “the First Hermit.” Anthony was ninety years old, and had been living as an ascetic for over 70 years, before he first met Paul, shortly before the latter’s death at the age of 113. He also had as a contemporary St Pachomius, who greatly honored in the East as the author of an important monastic rule. Nevertheless, Anthony may rightly be called the Father of Monasticism in the East, as St Benedict is in the West, for it was by his example, more than any other, that so many men and women of his own time and subsequent eras were inspired to embrace the monastic life.
Athanasius tells of many times when Anthony struggled against devils, both by resisting temptations, and suffering bodily harm that the devil was permitted to inflict upon him. On one such occasion, early in his life as an ascetic, “a multitude of demons … so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain.” He was discovered unconscious by the local villagers, who thought him dead, and brought him to their church. On recovering, he fearlessly returned to the place where he had been tormented, and
“post orationem clara voce dicebat, ‘Ecce hic sum ego Antonius, non fugio vestra certamina, etiamsi majora faciatis, nullus me separabit a charitate Christi.’ … bonorum hostis diabolus, admiratus quod post tot verbera fuisset ausus reverti, congregatis canibus suis, et proprio se furore dilanians, ‘Videtis, ait, quia nec spiritu fornicationis, nec corporis doloribus superatus, insuper audacter lacessit nos. Omnia arma corripite, acrius a nobis impugnandus est!’ … Sonitus igitur repentinus increpuit, ita ut loco funditus agitato, et parietibus patefactis, multifaria daemonum exinde turba se effunderet; nam et bestiarum et serpentium formas induentes, omnem protinus locum replevere phantasiis leonum, taurorum, luporum, aspidum, serpentium, scorpionum, necnon et pardorum atque ursorum. … Antonius flagellatus atque confossus sentiebat quidem asperiores corporis dolores, sed imperterritus durabat mente pervigili. Et licet gemitum vulnera carnis exprimerent, sensu tamen idem permanens, quasi de inimicis luderet, loquebatur, ‘Si virium aliquid haberetis, sufficeret unus ad praelium; sed quoniam Domino vos enervante frangimini, multitudine tentatis inferre terrores, cum hoc ipsum infirmitatis indicium sit, quod irrationabilium induitis formas bestiarum.’ … Multa contra sanctum Antonium minantes, fremebant dentibus suis, quod nullus eorum tentamenta consequeretur effectus, sed maxime e contrario gigneretur illusio.
After prayer, he said in a loud voice, ‘Behold, here am I, Antony; I do not flee from any contest with you; even if you inflict greater ones, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.’ (Rom. 8, 39) … the enemy of all good, the devil, marveling that he had dared to return after so many blows, gathered his hounds and, tearing at himself in his fury, said, “You see that he is not overcome by the spirit of fornication, not by the pains of the body, and even dares to summon us! Seize all your arms; we must attack him the more harshly!” … Therefore, a sound suddenly burst forth, such that the whole place was shaken from its foundation, the walls were laid open, and a crowd of many sorts of demons poured forth from it; for putting on the forms of beasts and serpents, they immediately fill the whole places with the likeness of lions, bulls, wolves, asps, serpents, scorpions, as well as leopards and bears. … But Antony, though he was beaten and run through, and felt more harshly the pains of the body, still remained unshaken and watchful in mind, and though the wounds of the flesh made him groan, he remained the same in his senses, and as if he were mocking his enemies, said, ‘If you had any strength, one would be enough for the battle, but since the Lord makes you weak and you are broken, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: though this itself shows your weakness, that you put on the forms of irrational beasts.” … Making many threats against St Anthony, they gnashed their teeth, since their assaults had no effect on him, but rather engendered mockery of themselves instead.” (The Life of Anthony, chapter 8)
This passage and others of a similar vein in Athanasius’ biography have provided artists with the opportunity to indulge their strangest fantasies in depicting the demons who attack Anthony. Hieronymus Bosch, not surprisingly, painted a complete triptych on the subject (above), which was also tackled (also not surprisingly) by Salvador Dalí.