Temptation of Saint Anthony—Artistic Visions of an Hermit’s Trials and Tribulations on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art
December 6, 2016–March 12, 2017
“What does he know who hasn’t suffered temptations?” (Sirach 34,9). This winter, Bowdoin College is investigating the wisdom that comes out of self-knowledge in the exhibition The Temptation of Saint Anthony, on view December 6, 2016 through March 12, 2017. Organized by Joachim Homann, the Museum’s curator, this tightly focused exhibition of paintings, prints, and a silent short film illustrates the enormous appeal of the ancient legend of Saint Anthony, the Egyptian desert saint who was tormented by his visions. Many generations of artists since the Renaissance illustrated the legend and contemplated in their often fantastical works the dangers—and pleasures—of an unruly imagination.
The exhibition will bring together extraordinary works from the last five hundred years by Martin Schongauer, Jacques Callot, Odilon Redon, and others who painted and drew Saint Anthony’s fantasies, thereby making them their own. They created visual expressions for a literary tradition that reaches from Athanasius of Alexandria, whose best-selling biography of Saint Anthony helped to lay the foundation of Christian monasticism, to Gustave Flaubert, whose book on Saint Anthony was a favorite of the young Sigmund Freud, and that continues to fascinate writers, artists, and filmmakers today.
“It might seem unusual to dedicate a show in an art museum to the legacy of a single saint,” says curator Joachim Homann, “but this thematic focus provides a unique opportunity to see artists reflect on the power of their images. They enriched the inner lives of their viewers by pushing themselves out of their comfort zones.”
Highlights of work in this exhibition include:
Giovanni da Milano, Italian (active 1346–1369)
St. Anthony Abbot, ca. 1365
tempera on panel
Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation
Williams College Museum of Art, 60.12
This stunning fictitious portrait of the desert saint, perhaps from a Sienese altar, is the earliest work in the exhibition. Its medieval icon-like presentation on gold ground evokes the Byzantine veneration of images and at the same time, with the saint’s haunted gaze, offers a remarkable characterization of this troubled figure that clearly acknowledges his struggles without spelling anything out. For the argument of this exhibition it is extremely important to demonstrate that Anthony Abbot was indeed a much-revered figure and conduit for prayer. Our interpretation of later, more emphatic renderings of Saint Anthony’s Temptations as painted reflection on the validity or reliability of the (artistic) imagination would finds a meaningful starting point in this panel. Giovanni da Milano was, even by Florentine standards, an original and exceptionally talented painter whose work will shine in this juxtaposition with works by his successors.
Martin Schongauer (German, 1448–1491)
The Tribulations of Saint Anthony, after 1470
Schongauer’s wildly imaginative work has long been appreciated as one of the artist’s most captivating inventions. It has been suggested that this work was created for the same Alsatian convent dedicated to Saint Anthony that later commissioned Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece. For our understanding of the important role Saint Anthony Abbot played in the early modern imagination, this convent and hospital and the art it made possible are highly significant.
Possible artistic sources, from Jan van Eyck’s renderings of Saint Michael fighting in the sky to a now lost work by the Master E S do not explain Schongauer’s ingenious innovation. The nine monsters that torment the saint high up in the air are unlike anything anyone has ever seen. They are, however, based in part on natural specimens that Schongauer might have studied in cabinets of curiosities. Within the context of this exhibition, which focuses on the legend of Saint Anthony as a case study for Christian reflections on and resentments against images and the imagination, Schongauer’s work is of pivotal importance.
Pieter van der Heyden, Flemish (ca. 1530–after 1567), after Pieter Bruegel I, Flemish (ca. 1525–1569)
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1556
Acquired by the Clark, 2001
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
With the drawing for this captivating print, Pieter Bruegel revived the fantastical imagery first introduced by Hieronymus Bosch fifty years earlier. His complex representations of the saint’s tormenting visions are among the most haunting in the history of art and have not been conclusively explained. While Bruegel’s references to human follies and deficiencies of the church give this print a satirical edge, their mystery seems deeper. Columbia Professor Martin Meisel, a specialist for theater, just published a commentary on Bruegel’s work in his book Chaos Imagined (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), in which he evokes the print’s carnivalesque transgression “of all bounds between animal, vegetable, and mineral, between species, orders, categories of being, whose separation, naming, and elemental assignment were instrumental in creating the cosmos.” Our focus is specifically the distorted vision of the saint, for which Bruegel finds an unforgettable image in the dismembered, one-eyed head with grotesquely misplaced glasses. Bruegel’s distrust—and masterful use—of visual imagery are both brilliantly presented.
David Ryckaert III, Flemish (1612–1661)
The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1649
oil on copper
Purchase with the Warbeke Art Museum Fund
Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
The painting is fascinating for the unusual realism with which Ryckaert, a genre painter for most of his life, treats the fantastical subject—a stark contrast to earlier renderings. It also offers an account of the changing attitudes toward the long-venerated saint, who acquired attributes such as the pig centuries after the literary account of his life began to circulate. Most important for our exhibition, however, is Ryckaert’s careful distinction between the visible and imagined realities that he overlays in his work, effectively establishing the work of art as a screen on which the two realms meet.
Felicien Rops, Belgian (1833–1898)
Etude pour la tentation de Sainte Antoine (ou La femme en Croix) [Study for the Temptation of St. Anthony (or woman on cross)]
Heliogravure, aquatint, and drypoint on white wove paper
Bequest of Helene Brosseau Black (Class of 1931
With his rendering of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, the symbolist artist Felicien Rops found the appreciation of Sigmund Freud, who praised his intuitive capturing of the return of the repressed “at the very moment of its repression.” In the exhibition, Rops’s print will be seen side by side with Georges Méliès’s short film Tentation de Saint Antoine, 1898, which successfully uses the medium’s propensity for optical illusions to animate Rops’s pictorial idea.
Exhibited on an academic campus, this exhibition will spark conversations about power and fear of images. Public programs include a film screening of Fellini’s masterful “The Temptation of Doctor Antonio,” as well as a Bowdoin faculty round-table with members of the Departments of Religion, Art History, Romance Languages, and Government and Legal Studies who discuss iconoclasm in the Middle East today and comparative expressions of the fear of images in western history.