Saint Anthony in Art, by Mary F Nixon-Roulet

In the great city of Lisbon, in the year 1195, there was born Ferdinand Martin de Bulleons, the son of very noble people of high rank. The father was descended from Godfrey de Bouillon, famous in the Crusades, while the boy’s mother, Dona Maria Tavera, traced her lineage from a sovereign of the Asturias.

Brought up by an uncle who was a priest of great sanctity, Ferdinand early showed the piety of a saintly nature. When he was only fifteen, he determined to give up the world, retiring to a monastery near Lisbon, and thence he was transferred to Santa Cruz, near Coimbra, where he met the Franciscan friars whose influence on his life was to prove so strong.

These friars were guests at Coimbra on their way to preach to the Moors in Africa. They were very holy men, and Ferdinand was much impressed with their sanctity and devotion. When they met martyrdom at the hands of Miramolen, the Moorish king, and their relics were brought to Coimbra, the young priest’s desire was aroused for a more austere life than that which his order demanded, and his wish to preach the gospel to the heathen led him to seek entrance into the Franciscan order.

“I wish to be as poor as Our Lord,” he said.

“Go, then, if you will become a saint,” said one of the Community, in sorrow at losing so beloved a brother as the young Portuguese.

“When you hear of my being one, you will praise God,” said Ferdinand, prophetically; and twelve years later he was canonized by Pope Gregory IX.

Ferdinand took the Franciscan habit in 1220, becoming Brother Anthony, and living a retired life for some years.

His desire to go to Africa was ungratified because of his poor health, and Italy was the scene of his greatest labors.

There were at that time many wrong doctrines springing up in various provinces and threatening to undermine the unity of the Church; and the “silver tongue” of the young Franciscan seemed to strike a heavenly music into the discord of men’s souls. Wherever he spoke they listened and wondered. With words of loving exhortation he brought to penitence the most wicked of men, and especially was this true of the Paduans, for, whereas the people of Padua had been noted for turbulence, shortly after Saint Anthony’s death Pope Gregory addressed to the city a Bull in which he praised the piety and zeal of the people.

In the confessional an angel of patience and sweetness, Saint Anthony’s questions were so pertinent, his insight so almost inspired, that penitents came to him from miles around, and even the most hardened bandits made restitution for their crimes at the Saint’s commands.

Marvelous were the answers received to Saint Anthony’s prayers, but such was his sweetness and humility that he always told the people it was their faith and not his merits which had obtained the favor of Heaven.

The Saint was

A lily in his spotless purity;
In grace and perfume like the budding rose
That, blushing, dew-kissed in my garden glows;
A woman in his tender sympathy;
In mighty, sheltering strength a stalwart tree
All sorrowful amidst poor human woes,
A gentle river whence sweet pity flows,
A little child in quaint simplicity.

Only six-and-thirty when he died, Saint Anthony was singularly young-looking, small and slight, with an olive complexion, deep, dark eyes, and an expression of exquisite sweetness and purity. His piety by no means interfered with his cheerfulness, for he was always so bright that children and animals adored him. Indeed, every one who came under the sway of his gracious personality loved him devotedly. Always a great sufferer, austere in his life, untiring in his efforts for others, he had a worn face, a slight, emaciated frame; but a well nigh heavenly light irradiated his countenance.

In art Saint Anthony is represented in many ways. Legends anent him are numerous; Italy teems with pretty conceits about him, and in many pictures the surroundings are indigenous to the soil of Padua, of which city he is the patron saint. The people of this part of Italy never tire of sounding his praises, and legends beyond number testify to his love for the Paduans.

It was in Padua, in the house of Tiso, one of the Camposampieri, that the Christ Child is said to have appeared to Saint Anthony in the lovely vision so often reproduced in art, and in the same city was held the famous interview with the tyrant Ezzelino. This man was so impressed with Saint Anthony’s words of rebuke for his cruelties that he made no reply, saying to his astonished courtiers, haughty, unprincipled man though he was, “I tell you that while that friar was speaking, I saw his face shining with such a glory that it filled me with awe and terror, and I could only kneel at his feet like a criminal.” This famous interview has been made the subject of a great picture by one of the old masters.

“I see my God,” said Saint Anthony, as he lay dying in a little cell at Arcella, tenderly watched over by the Franciscan friars; then, with a smile of ineffable joy upon his pallid face, he passed tranquilly away, and his life of sweetness and devotion to God closed June 13, 1231.

The Flower of the Annunciation given to the stainless virgin, Saint Joseph’s flower for a blameless life, the lily, is the symbol of spotlessness; and so great was Saint Anthony’s purity that he is usually represented with a stalk of lilies. He always is garbed in the habit of Saint Francis and wears the cord of the order; sometimes he carries a book (emblem of learning), sometimes a flaming heart (for fervent piety), and sometimes has a flame of fire in his hand or on his breast. In several quaint and very old pictures of Saint Anthony, he is represented with the mule, famous in the story, oft repeated, of the mule and his unbelieving master.

Saint Anthony has long been a favorite subject with artists, and among the earliest known paintings of him is one by Giotto. It is one of the famous series of frescos in the Bardi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence, which paintings were covered over with whitewash, a century after the artist’s death, and were not completely uncovered till 1863. The series represented scenes in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, and he appears to Saint Anthony and a crowd of monks, seated in listening attitudes. Saint Anthony’s face is thin, but not ascetic looking. He is wrapped in his Franciscan garb, and gazes in rapt attention at Saint Francis, who holds up his hands, palms outward, to show the stigmata. Saint Anthony is rather primly drawn; according to Giotto’s style, short and sturdy of figure, the peasant-artist’s blood showing in that he seldom made his figures refined. The draperies, however, are truly Giotto-like, flowing and graceful, those of Saint Francis peculiarly so. Giotto was especially great in his grouping and originality, and there is something remarkable in the group of monks, each in a different attitude, yet each listening intently, awed and interested.

Sodoma’s picture of Saint Anthony is very different. The saint, very youthful-looking, stands in an attitude of rare grace, his head upon one side, an expression of exceeding sweetness upon his boyish face. In one hand he holds the flaming heart; a view of the other is obscured by his habit. Above him in the clouds the Blessed Virgin holds the Christ-Child, both smiling down upon the saint who loved them both, while dainty, shadowy, cherubic forms hover overhead. Sodoma’s characteristics are nowhere shown more plainly than in this picture. His figures are always as long-limbed and slender as Giotto’s are thick, and his draperies are almost serpentine in their sinuous folds. The picture is now in the church of San Bernardino in Siena, and is so defaced as to render aught but the general outlines and the saint’s face scarcely distinguishable.

In the church of Saint Sebastian in beautiful Venice, there is a picture of Saint Anthony which sets at naught all one’s preconceived ideas as to the gentle saint.

Paolo Cagliari — born in Verona, and hence, after the Italian fashion of nicknaming a man from his city, called “Veronese” — had a magnificence of painting peculiarly his own. In his paintings one always sees gorgeous costuming, pomp and splendor, minuteness of detail and rich ornamentation wedded to his careful drawing and transparence of coloring. The simplest pictures show this element of the ostentatious magnificence of Venetian life, and his painting of Saint Anthony has this peculiarity in no small degree. Beneath a superb velvet canopy the Blessed Virgin is enthroned, the Christ in her arms, at one side a gorgeously attired Venetian damsel who is offering a snow-white dove to the Queen of Heaven. And she is a queen indeed! Her face is of the most beautiful type of Italian noblewoman; chaste, serene, sweet, and lovely with the gentle yet high-bred loveliness of one who is accustomed to the dignity which rank and station unconsciously give. The bambino nestling to her breast has none of the godlike qualities of Raphael’s Christ. It is but an Italian baby, chubby and sweet, as all babies are, but earthly. Paolo’s Saint Anthony is clad in his brown habit, but there is a rich look to even this simple garb, as if the Veronese could not bring himself to paint in other than his wonted splendor. In his hand Saint Anthony carries a book and a stalk of lilies, and his figure is lithe and graceful. But the face is a disappointment. The head is round, the hair dark and curly, the complexion almost swarthy, the eyes and eyebrows set aslant, the mouth unprepossessing, the whole type rather Moorish than Portuguese.

Perhaps the most noted of the many who have painted Saint Anthony is the Spaniard Murillo, for after the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin and his beloved “ninos” the great master best loved to picture the Paduan Saint. The Sevillian School of Painting was an uncommon one in many ways, and especially so from a moral point of view. The painters were obliged to be pure in morals and life; any one detected in using an improper expression was expelled from the Academy, and the painter of an immoral picture was fined heavily and imprisoned. Old chroniclers relate that the artists regarded their work as entirely devotional, and it is not to be wondered at that the sweet spirit and transcendent genius of Murillo, fostered by such influences as these, felt closely allied to the spotless Portuguese youth, to whom race and clime as well as faith bound him in brotherly allegiance.

Perhaps the best known of all Murillo’s Saint Anthonys is the large canvas in the Berlin Museum. The background of the picture is indicated rather than defined, and consists of a landscape in Murillo’s best style, the vaporoso or cloudy. The turquoise sky is filled with cherubs, those ineffably lovely babies which only Murillo could paint so perfectly, one little fellow holding a book, a second with a lily branch, others in charming attitudes, graceful and natural.

The central figures, however, are those of the Saint in his friar’s dark robe, kneeling upon the ground, with the Baby Christ clasped close to his breast. The child is a chubby, healthy baby, very sweet and lovable, charming from its curly head to its little pink toes, and its baby hand is raised to Saint Anthony’s face, patting it with perfect naturalness, as would any mere human baby, for it is by no means a Child God, a Divinity in human form. The Saint holds it close in a rapture of love, but more as if it were a dear, familiar friend than a wonder of majesty come down from heaven. In this picture Murillo has departed from the accepted ideal taken from the old portraits, of Saint Anthony, and made him appear more robust than the frail, ascetic young friar, worn with penance and illness. The face has an expression of mingled strength, purity, and sweetness, such as one occasionally sees to-day in a Spanish cathedral in fair Andalusia, where piety is not yet dead and faith is still a vitalizing force.

Very different from this picture is the equally famous one painted by Murillo for the Seville Cathedral. It hangs in the Baptistery, where a softly shaded light falls upon the wonderful picture, bringing out its exquisite tones in perfect loveliness. Saint Anthony is represented kneeling upon the stone-flagged floor of the chapel, and near by is the simple table which holds his breviary and some lilies. Through an open doorway, with a graceful Moresque arch, the white walls of the convent may be seen across a sunny corner of the court, while the foreground is dark, throwing into high relief the slender figure of the Saint, kneeling with arms outstretched, looking upward with a face full of an awed expectancy. Above him, surrounded by angels and cherubs, with flowers and sunbeams, light and glory, stands the Child God, His little arms reaching out to the Saint who loved Him, every curve of His body, every line of His face replete with dignity and sweetness. The picture is a triumph of heartfelt devotion and true genius. It was of this picture that Antonio Castello, nephew of Murillo’s master, said: “It is all over with Castello! Is it possible that Murillo, my uncle’s servile imitator, can be the author of all this grace and beauty of coloring?”

Murillo received ten thousand reals (about five hundred dollars) for this painting, — a large price in those days, although seeming pitifully small to-day as one gazes upon the almost priceless canvas for which the Duke of Wellington once offered the Cathedral canons two hundred and forty thousand dollars. In November, 1874, the figure of Saint Anthony was cut out of the foreground and stolen by a worse than vandal. All Spain was in an uproar, and art-lovers all over the world looked for traces of the lost saint. The picture was at last offered for two hundred and fifty dollars to Mr. Schaus, an art-dealer of New York, who, recognizing it at once, bought it and returned it to Seville. It was restored to its place in the painting so carefully that no one would ever be able to tell that it had been disturbed.

Murillo painted no less than nine pictures of Saint Anthony, and his work is always noted for tenderness and beauty of coloring combined with a marked religious feeling. His flesh tints are remarkably clear and soft, and in his best style he is surpassed by few of the old masters.

The Saint Anthony now in the Seville Museum is a wonderful piece of work — artistically considered — though the Saint himself is less pleasing than other of Murillo’s representations of him. In his dark habit, his sharp-featured face thrown into bold relief, a spray of lilies in his hand, he stands with both arms about the Baby Christ, a charming little figure, standing upon a book, one hand in the Saint’s dark hair, an expression of childish roguery upon His dainty little face, surrounded with a halo of soft brown curls.

Another great Spaniard, somewhat akin to “The Painter of Conceptions,” as Murillo is often called, is Ribera, a very different personality from the charming Sevillian.

Jose Ribera was born at Jativa, near Valencia, in 1588, and died in Naples in 1656. He was a pupil of Ribalta (founder of the Yalencian school), and studied in Italy, copying Caravaggio and others of the naturalist painters, himself

“A painter of eclectic school, Taking his dicers, candle-lights, and grins From Caravaggio, and in holier groups Combining Flemish flesh with martyrdom, Knowing all tricks of style at thirty-one.”

The best of Ribera’s work was done in his later days, when he painted with much originality. His knowledge of anatomy was great, and many of his paintings, especially those of the martyrdom of the saints, are horrible in the intensity of suffering displayed. His finest work is in the church of San Martino, in Venice, — a lovely “Pieta,” – but he is represented in nearly all the great galleries of Europe.

His Saint Anthony, in the Academy of Saint Ferdinand at Madrid, is one of the finest examples of his best style. In a dark, stone-flagged cell, with no furniture save a rough table upon which lies a missal, kneels the Saint in an attitude of worship. The background is obscure, the shadows deep; there is an air of mystery truly Ribera-like in the simple picture. There are no lilies, no heavenly roses; none of Murillo’s light and brightness. The only light in the picture radiates from the figure of the Christ-Child, which is poised above with indescribable grace, pointing heavenward. The Saint kneels below, a dark figure, but with a face of exquisite loveliness, a boyish face of the purest Spanish type, fervent and exalted, with an expression of mingled love, awe, and sweetness. There is little color in the picture, but a wonderful blending of quiet tones, and an effect of great simplicity and religious devotion in the masterly handling of the shadowy and mystic effects. Ribera centres every thought upon the Child Christ and Saint Anthony’s devotion to it, and it seems as if the Saint were saying, or, rather, thinking,

“Thou, like a cloud, my soul,
Dost in thyself of beauty naught possess;
Devoid of light of heaven, a vapor foul,
The veil of nothingness.”

Ribera has been called “Lo Spagnoletto” (the Little Spaniard), and is highly esteemed by art critics. In looking at his wonderfully devotional pictures it seems impossible that he could have been the jovial, artistic, careless fellow he is said to have been, full of youthful foibles and follies, yet an artist to his fingertips.

A century before the gay Spanish cavalier there lived in Florence, where the Arno flows along in purple loveliness through the quaint city of Romola, Luca Signorelli, called “Lo Cortona” from the city of Cortona.

He was a gentle, kindly, simple soul about whom little is known, painting because he could not help it, loving art for art’s sake. His subjects were nearly always religious ones, and his frescoes were noted even at that day, when the art of frescoing was brought so nearly to perfection.

He was one who struggled and toiled through untold difficulties to attain perfection, yet he never wearied, and his joy in his work was unbounded.

“The Ideal has discoveries which ask
No test, no faith, save that we joy in them,
A new-found continent with spreading lands
Where pleasure charters all, where virtue, rank,
Use, right, and truth have but one name, Delight.
Thus Art’s creations, when etherealized.
To least admixture of the grosser facts,
Delight may stamp as highest.”

Signorelli was born and bred in the loveliest region of all lovely Italy, where green valleys stretch away towards the mountains, and mighty cathedral spires reach heavenward. There,

“Pealing on high from the quaint convent towers,
Still ring the Catholic signals, summoning
To grave remembrance of the larger life
That bears our own, like perishable fruit.
Upon its heaven-wide branches.”

The simplicity of Nature came to the painter from his early life among the hills, and there is in his works a taste and understanding rare even among the men of his own school.

In the Museum at Berlin is the famous picture of Saint Anthony which Signorelli wrought with so much art and care. The young saint is grouped with Saint Augustine, wise Father of the Church, and lovely, gracious Saint Catherine, and her figure is perhaps Signorelli’s finest piece of work. Saint Anthony is kneeling in a position of adoration, with folded hands, and his dark eyes are turned upward. Though the face is not beautiful, it is wonderfully lifelike, and the coloring of the whole picture is a work of unquestioned genius. It is strange to see Saint Anthony without his lilies or his beloved Baby Our Lord, yet the group is a fitting one, for the young Saint had much of the wisdom and learning of the great doctor of the Church, and of the purity of Saint Catherine, so that the painting has an intense significance to the genuine art-lover or one of the religious temperament.

Very different from this is a picture in the Brera at Milan, where Saint Anthony kneels in loving adoration before the Infant Christ held in the arms of His Blessed Mother. Her face is one of the most lovely ever painted, with a dignity, a graciousness, a tender mother-love truly divine. Her floating robes of sapphire hue conceal the form as she clasps in her arms the Holy Child, who reaches out His little hands lovingly to His Saint. The figure of Saint Anthony is in shadow and the profile only may be seen, but his expression is one of eager devotion, of angelic purity, a perfect reflex of his character. The artist has entered truly into the spirit of the scene. He must have loved Our Blessed Mother to have made her so lovely, and he must have been capable of appreciating the character of the Saint of Padua. It seems as if the painter must have painted lovingly, with devotion in each stroke of the brush as if he must have been one who had

“An eye
That winces at false work and loves the true,
With hand and arm that play upon the tool
As willingly as any singing bird
Sets him to sing his morning roundelay
Because he likes to sing and likes the song.”

Such a workman was the artist, for Sir Anthony Van Dyck — whatever may have been his faults of character — was an artist to the core. Not a stroke of his brush was slighted, and in the pictures of his patron Saint he has shown bis best skill.

One of his most remarkable portrayals of the “Padovani patron” was painted for the Recollets at Malines. This represents Saint Anthony and the mule, and the same subject appears in nearly every edifice of the Franciscan Order, and in the famous chapel of “Sant’ Antonio di Padova,” in Padua. The legend goes that as Saint Anthony was bearing the Blessed Sacrament to the dying, he met a mule-driver who scoffed at Our Lord and denied that he was present. Saint Anthony eyed the peasant reproachfully, and turning to the mule, commanded him to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament, as a token of reverence for the presence of God. The beast fell to his knees, and no commands could induce him to rise until the Saint had passed, by, his master even tempting him with a bundle of oats to no avail. Van Dyck’s painting of this legend is very fine, and—probably because studied from the only original portrait of the Saint, that in the Paduan chapel — it is very like what one would suppose Saint Anthony to have been.

One of the most perfect paintings of Saint Anthony now in existence is by Johann von Schraudolph, a German of the Munich school. He has painted several pictures of the Saint, all with the same attributes — a wonderful devotion and religious feeling blended with finish and clever execution. In this, the best of his works, the Saint kneels before the infant Saviour, who stands upon an open book, His tiny hands outstretched to the Saint. The composition of the painting is much the same as a Murillo or a Ribera. There is the same stone-flagged cell, the pure white lilies, the Child God appearing in the clouds to the kneeling monk; but the beauty lies in the wonderful expression in the whole picture.

Upon the floor rest the “Sweet Lilies of Eternal Peace,” almost fragrant, so perfect are they. The little Our Lord is not a mere chubby baby, but so divinely loving in His condescension that one could not wonder at the adoration of the Saint. Rays of light radiate from the perfect little figure and reach to the face of the kneeling man, lighting it up in heavenly loveliness. Saint Anthony’s expression seems to say, ” Can it be possible that my God whom I have so loved condescends to come to me?” He has one hand outstretched, the other laid deprecatingly upon his breast. It is a marvelous picture, and one to remember always — a picture that lifts the soul above the sordid realms of earth and makes one long for purity and gentleness and all the lovely virtues which Saint Anthony had; to

“Keep the thought of life, like Mary,
Virgin to a virgin’s heart.”

Looking at such a picture, one seems to hear

“Hints of heavenly voices,
Tone for silvery tone,
Move in rarer measures
Than to us are known,
Still wooing us to worlds
Beyond the shadowy zone.”

Surely this is the aim of art, to elevate and uplift

“Taste, beauty, what are they
But the soul’s choice towards perfect bias wrought
By finer balance of a fuller growth.”

The Old Masters, dead for centuries, live forever in the hearts of those who love high thoughts and noble deeds and strong endeavor.

The artists who have painted Saint Anthony have left a perpetual legacy of good, a sweet remembrance of virtues, for to see his pictures is to recall his almost perfect life and to long for such virtues as were his. Even such a wish is an impulse toward heaven, for

“Whoever shall discern true ends here,
Shall grow pure enough to long for them,
Brave enough to strive for them,
And strong enough to reach them
Though the way be rough.”

- text taken from Saint Anthony in Art and Other Sketches, by Mary F Nixon-Roulet, Marlier and Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1901; the Murillo and von Schraudolph illustrations are from the book; the Ribera and Van Dyck were swiped from WikiArt.org