Thursday, 17 January 2013


“We gain the strength of the temptation we resist.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

January 17 is the Feast Day of St Anthony the Great. Anthony was born in to a wealthy family in Lower Egypt about 254 AD. Also known as Anthony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, and Anthony the Anchorite, he was a leader among the Desert Fathers, who were Christian monks in the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

Anthony live a life of ease and leisure until he was about 18 years old, when his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. One day shortly threafter he heard a sermon which quoted Jesus’ teaching: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19:21). This made a great impression on him. Anthony then gave away some of the family estate to his neighbours, sold the remaining property, donated the funds thus raised to the poor, placed his sister with a group of Christian virgins, a type of proto-monastery of nuns, and himself became the disciple of a local hermit in the desert.

He spent his life praying and meditating, and his holiness marked him as one whose wisdom commanded respect. According to writing about his life, the devil fought St. Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and visions of women who tried to tempt him. All of these temptations he overcame by the power of prayer. After that, he moved to a tomb, where he resided and closed the door on himself, depending on some local villagers who brought him food. When the devil perceived his ascetic life and his intense worship, he was envious and beat him mercilessly, leaving him unconscious. When his friends from the local village came to visit him and found him in this condition, they carried him to a church. These episodes provided a rich theme for Christian art, generally titled “The Temptation of St Anthony”.

Salvador Dali’s “Temptation of St Anthony” above is modern representation of this and builds on the rich iconography of the past centuries. The Saint in Dali’s painting is tempted firstly by the form of a horse in the foreground representing strength, sometimes also symbol of voluptuousness. The elephant which follows it, is carrying on its back the golden cup of lust in which a nude woman is standing precariously balanced on the fragile pedestal, a figure which emphasises the erotic character of the composition. The other elephants are carrying buildings on their backs; the first of these is an obelisk inspired by that of Bernini in Rome, the second and third are burdened with Venetian edifices in the style of Palladio. In the background another elephant carries a tall tower, which is not without phallic overtones, and in the clouds one can glimpse a few fragments of the Escorial, symbol of temporal and spiritual order.

When the Synod of Nicaea was convened, St Anthony was invited to participate. His eloquent defence of the Orthodox doctrine concerning the person of Jesus Christ was instrumental in weakening the position of the schismatic sect, Arianism. His witness led to the eventual and complete elimination of Arianism. He instructed his followers to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave, lest his body become an object of veneration. The monastic rules of Saint Anthony, the “patriarch” of monastic life, have served as the basis for countless monasteries.

St Antony the Great of Egypt is the patron saint of pig breeders and farmers. His name has given us the English word “tantony”, a diminutive for pig, usually applied to the runt of the litter.
    From St Antony’s Feast be more bold,
    Raise your skirt a little, it’ll be less cold.
                Greek Weather Rhyme

St Anthony is also revered as the patron saint of skin diseases (erysipelas is a skin disease also known as St Anthony’s fire), of basket makers, brushmakers, and gravediggers.

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