In 1946, a competition was held in New York by film producer David Loew and director Albert Lewin to select a painting that would feature in their forthcoming film, The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant. The previous year, Lewin had directed an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and for the production they had commissioned a painting by surrealist artist Ivan Albright to appear as the eponymous portrait. It would be revealed in a scene shot in colour; the only one in an otherwise black and white film. We see this carried off to staggering effect, with the lurid image of Albright’s bloated, putrescent Gray vividly capturing the protagonist’s physical and moral degradation in what is still an unsettling scene.
For the Bel Ami picture, Loew and Lewin proposed as their theme the Temptation of St Anthony, and for their contestants, they summoned some of the most celebrated figures in 20th century art, most of them exponents of Surrealism. Ivan Albright aside, these would include Eugene Berman, Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Louis Gugliemi, Horace Pippin, Abraham Rattner, Stanley Spencer, Dorothea Tanning and her future husband Max Ernst, who would be the eventual winner.
In many ways, the 1946 competition was a watershed for Surrealism; demonstrating, in the application of a common subject, the variety of styles and themes the movement spanned in its three-decade history, as well as the diversity and depth of its idiosyncrasies. This was also a year that saw Surrealism in exile, with many of its founding figures now establishing themselves in North America and Mexico after being ousted from France, with the war casting long shadows on their later works.
It was also a turning point in the history of another artistic tradition: that of the life and sufferings of St. Anthony the Great. As a theological figure, he occupies a central place in Western Christianity, being among the first hermits and setting the model for monastic life throughout much of the Late Middle Ages. In an artistic context, however, he is best known as a favourite subject for the proliferation of graphic, disturbing and often bizarre images, detailing his encounters with supernatural entities as recorded by his biographer Athanasius. These focus mainly on accounts of a series of demonic attacks and temptations at the hands of the ‘spirit of fornication’, manifested in the shape of ‘a small child, all black’. The scenes would often be depicted in a style not far removed from that of the later Surrealists, combining horror and absurdity, with often deeply sexual overtones.
But what at the outset may have seemed like the ideal marriage of surrealistic form and subject posed fundamental contradictions, as it entailed the adoption of a Christian motif by a movement the basis of which was avowedly atheistic and overwhelmingly anti-clerical. Given this background, one might expect the Surrealist’s reworking of it to be, if not a continuation of the theme, then at least a conscious subversion of it. The results were, nonetheless, entirely different from what might have been expected, and it will be useful to explore the development of the St. Anthony theme itself to best appreciate them.
Though with roots in Hellenic Christianity, the St. Anthony tradition was chiefly a creation of the European medieval mind. It may even help to think of it as less of a tradition than as a cohesive movement, for although its development can be traced to the 11th century, its real emergence as a trope belongs to the late 15th century. Furthermore, what paintings did arise during this period bear remarkable consistencies, particularly as pertains to the demonic onslaught taking place in caves and in the ‘wilderness’, as detailed in the legend.
The wave of St. Anthony depictions that took shape in the late 15th century came from several convergent factors, spanning developments in art and in the broader intellectual currents of the time. One work in particular seems to have precipitated this trend: Martin Schongauer’s engraving showing Anthony being borne aloft by devils. Stylistically, it stemmed from the Gothic tradition, whose combination of intense morality and fascination with the morbid made Schongauer’s theme a fitting choice. Its resonance with the popular sentiment of the time is evidenced by how it would inspire artists from Germany and the Netherlands during the Northern Renaissance.
It would later gain a following in Italy by galvanising many of its Baroque artists, among them Michelangelo, whose famous study of Schongauer’s engraving constitutes his first known piece. Even so, with the exception of his and Salvator Rosa’s work over a century later, the Italian takes on the Temptation tend to eschew the demonic elements of Anthony’s plight in lieu of feminine depictions embodying the enticements of the flesh. These were mostly allegorical, and represent later interpretations of the legend, possibly based on the life of St. Hilarion of Palestine. Anthony’s demonic assailants, on the other hand, are featured in the earliest sources, and they were as a whole conceived of literally.
The presence of these demons also underlines the importance of Schongauer’s work, especially as regards their form. They are chimaeras: compound entities consisting of a motley assortment of conjoined animal parts. While demons in Western art had a long tradition of bestial depictions, these tended to follow a more traditional model, as seen in examples like the Livre de la Vigne nostre Seigneur and the Codex Gigas. This is also the case in earlier St. Anthony paintings, such as Sassetta’s St. Anthony Beaten by Devils. Produced forty-seven years before Schongauer’s work, the contrast in style is immediately apparent.
One explanation for this may respond to Schongauer’s source material. Though the demons do, indeed, appear in Athanasius’ account, they are shaped simply:
…in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed…
The seeming disparity may have arisen from the fact that Athanasius’ account was not the main source for the European artists. That came in the form of a Latin adaptation by Jacobus De Voragine compiled around 1260 as part of his Legenda Aurea, which comprised the histories and lives of various saints and had considerable circulation both in manuscript and print. His version of that same scene, as translated by William Caxton, omits these crucial details, appearing thus:
And anon they came in form of divers beasts wild and savage, of whom that one howled, another siffled, and another cried, and another brayed and assailed Saint Anthony, that one with the horns, the others with their teeth, and the others with their paws and ongles, and disturned, and all to-rent his body that he supposed well to die.
If this was a mistake on the artist’s part or a wilful misinterpretation is unclear, but the decision evidently struck a chord within the late medieval mindset, becoming a guideline for artists to follow over the next decade. The pattern is manifest in the works of Grünewald, Koler, Brueghel and Bosch, to name a few, and it is easy to see the appeal of this notion as both an expression of horror and a feat of imaginative skill. But even if this was the spark that set the St. Anthony movement on fire, it was far from the only contributing factor to its development.
Another explanation for the aforesaid manner of depiction lies in how demons were understood by the medieval mind. Though tied in heavily with folklore, the main body of Western demonology derives largely from Scholasticism and Aquinas, who developed his ideas on the matter through a process of logical deduction, determining the nature of the fallen angels in opposition to what was understood about the loyal ones. His text implies the forms taken by demons result from decisions taken by the demons themselves. Athanasius goes so far as to state that “[c]hanges of form for evil are easy for the devil”. It is possible to see this decision as being motivated by a desire to blaspheme. By taking on a compound form of multiple animals, the demons are defying not just God’s creation according to Scripture, but the neo-Platonist idea that helped ground it and which saw all living things as versions aspiring to the model of an immutable, perfect form.
Chimaera also take on a peculiar character within the scholastic tradition, one perhaps best demonstrated through the works of the grammarian Thomas Erfurt. His branch of philosophy, known as the modestae or ‘philosophy of modes’, drew a distinction between what he described as “active and passive means of recognising and interpreting an item (be it through deductive intellect, learned patterns, or passive intuition) within which there resides that item’s fundamental modi essendi or being in itself”. In his work, the Grammatica Speculativa, Erfurt actually used the image of the chimaera to illustrate this point, explaining how the active modes of signifying chimeras “are taken from the parts from which we imagine a chimera to be composed, which [as a fiction] we imagine from the head of a lion, the tail of a dragon, etc”. Thus, the chimaeric depiction of demons is indicative of their outlaw status within the material world, being so wicked that nothing can directly depict their true form, so they must take on the worst aspects of whatever other life already exists.
Another factor in this trend was St. Anthony’s preexisting position in European folk-beliefs, and it is possibly this which is hardest to overlook. Although hailing from Egypt, the cult of St. Anthony ultimately found its home in Europe when, in the 11th century, his remains were transported to Paris from Constantinople, where they had spent much of the previous centuries. He was interred within La Motte-Saint-Didier, later known as Saint-Antoine-l’Abbaye, where he was claimed to have cured many of his devotees of ergot poisoning. These incidents would start his long-running association with a disease that was rife throughout the Middle Ages, and would shape many of his depictions in art.
Ergotism, known as St Anthony’s Fire after the saint, is acquired when ergot, a fungus which affects grain, is baked into bread to produce a poisonous compound, resulting in vascular constriction and damage to tissue around the extremities. Inspired by the miracles wrought in the abbey, the name and image of St. Anthony were regularly invoked to bring healing to those suffering from it, for which images of devotional art were commissioned. The most famous of these was the Isenheim Altarpiece in Alsace, which houses the screens of Matthias Grünewald. There was even an order of monks founded specifically to treat the sufferers of the disease—the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony. According to tradition, the monks of that order kept pigs, after the example of some parts of the legend where St. Anthony allegedly spent time as a swineherd. This accounted for the appearance of pigs in some of the works on him, including those by Bosch and Joos van Craesbeeck.
But while the nerve and tissue damage caused by ergotism was perhaps its most debilitating long-term effect (provided that the sufferer even survived), it had another, far more tantalising, side effect. In its natural state, the ergot had few harmful effects, but when cooked, the process produced a compound structurally similar to lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, provoking uncontrollable hallucinations. This can go a long way in explaining the paintings in the St. Anthony tradition, for though not all the artists had experienced ergot poisoning themselves, the condition was pervasive enough in medieval society for them to have learned of its effects and—through popular legend and the various intellectual currents of the time—translated a collection of subjective experiences into a roughly formalised tradition.
In its relation to hallucinogenic experiences, though, the role of ergotism in the St. Anthony tradition raises a number of questions. First: how literally was the subject perceived, both by the artists and the sufferers of the condition? And what was the intention behind its depictions?
The association of diseases—especially of mental or neurological conditions—with spirits dates to ancient times and continued into medieval Europe, where infirmities like epilepsy and sleep paralysis were frequently attributed to succubi even as detractors like Hippocrates and later, Galen, argued for natural causes behind them. Ultimately, both strains of thinking would subsist, to varying degrees, among the educated and illiterate classes, with significant crossovers.
Since many paintings, such as Grünewald’s St. Anthony, were produced for explicitly devotional purposes and meant for popular consumption by all social strata, it is likely that multiple levels of interpretation could have been present in any one of these works, with each carrying its implications. These interlaced meanings are the focus of Bosch’s St. Anthony Triptych where, beside the fantastical imagery, it is possible to identify alchemical and medical apparatus related to the treatment of ergotism.
That so many readings could be made as to the literal or figurative presence of demons in Anthony’s legend and for contemporary sufferers of ergotism created the potential for subversive permutations. This uncertainty became yet more pronounced as the theme expanded beyond its devotional applications and took on a life of its own in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was the ambiguity inherent to the St. Anthony tradition that set up the basis for the Surrealists’ interpretation of the theme.
In the gloss to her entry for the 1946 Bel Ami Competition, Dorothea Tanning gave the following comments:
It seems to me that a man like our St. Anthony, with his self-inflicted mortification of the flesh, would be most crushingly tempted by sexual desires and, more particularly, the vision of woman in all her voluptuous aspects.
This placing of St. Anthony’s sexual desires at the thematic centre of her composition is indicative of much of the Surrealists’ reaction to their task of depicting him as art. Of the eleven entrants, only two lack explicitly sexual imagery and, where it is present, it’s in a multitude of forms, from the naturalistic to the fantastical.
While these possibilities had long played a significant part in the tradition, they were nowhere to be found in the original texts of Athanasius. Nor, however, were they entirely missing from them. In one notable scene, demonic sexuality is embodied in the form of the ‘spirit of fornication which tempts young people, appearing in the form of a small child, all black’. In a pattern that would repeat when the text later refers to his demonic attacks, it was Anthony himself who summoned this entity, so that he may know its nature, and who in overcoming it declared:
Sith I have perceived that thou art so foul a thing I shall never doubt thee.
Carried to its logical conclusion, the horror on display in the St. Anthony tradition becomes synonymous with the erotic. So while overt sexuality is missing in many of its earlier depictions, especially in those of the Northern school predating the more sensuous Italian contributions, the association of horror with sex implied that it was never altogether absent from many of the traditional images. This is markedly true of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, where the suggestive positioning of several of the demons lends them a sexual character; something which Ernst—whose Anthony was based on Grünewald’s—conveyed much more explicitly. Likewise, the diseased subject at the bottom left hand corner of the altarpiece, though generally interpreted to be a sufferer of ergotism, could just as well be afflicted with syphilis, a reading enforced by his uninhibited pose. Maybe unsurprisingly, this subject would be directly transposed into Tanning’s take on the temptation.
But what may possibly pervade the scene most strikingly are not the acts of demons, but the seeming mindlessness with which those acts are carried out. It is as if they were under the spell of a hideous compulsion more than heading any clear, heretical agenda—preemptive avatars of Gide’s idea of ‘gratuitous act’ that would influence the Surrealists.
The treatment of sexuality in the St. Anthony tradition is where the Surrealists found common ground with its earlier exponents. As a movement whose pursuit of artistic and cognitive freedom was intimately related to its anti-clerical bias, they would find little to share with Anthony’s intractable asceticism. But nor was their conception of freedom bound up with a belief in the inherent good of human nature, as espoused by their Romantic predecessors. Instead, they took their teachings from the ‘divine’ Marquis De Sade, for whom natural human will was, as with Grünewald’s demons, fundamentally corrupt and monstrous. Where Anthony strove to overcome such noxious influences, Sade advocated for a path of unrestrained research through them. If man was defined by his nature, the only properly examined life was unconstrained. In this sense, Sade was the epitome of the ‘spirit of fornication’ that St. Anthony struggled with.
Despite this deep ideological divide, the fusing of horror and sexuality showcased by the history of the St. Anthony tradition would continue in the same vein throughout time. For the Surrealists, Sade’s philosophy of the bedroom was evoked through a consciously Freudian filter, assuming an aggressively abstracted manner of sexuality. But the Surrealist pursuit of freedom—in which sexual freedom ranked as fairly high—was a predominantly male affair, and within their own depictions of St. Anthony, women and female sexuality often live out a dual function as the sources and the subjects of the horrors that they represent. Disembodied and mutilated evocations of female sexuality appear in Dalí’s St. Anthony, where a headless woman’s torso protrudes through a window. Guglielmi’s woman, nude but for long gloves and stockings, is twisted back to front, and Berman’s take the shape of limbless, crumbling statues.
Perhaps the most stunning instance of this can be found in Ernst’s winning contribution. His St. Anthony features the form of a nude woman being absorbed into the scenery, her head lost in a mass of writhing tentacles, held prisoner by the seething biota that make up Ernst’s nightmarish landscape in an evacuation of identity to parallel Magritte’s The Rape. As with the demons, Ernst’s woman is a living part of the environs; the two are equal, symbiotic parts of the same horror that pervades the scene.
The works of the Surrealists would also signal an inversion in the sexual morality of the St Anthony legend. There where, in his hagiographies, asceticism and abstinence had lent him strength and guarded him against the forces of the fallen world, to the Surrealists this was his damning flaw—indeed, the cause of his suffering. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the gloss to Ernst’s piece, where he describes how:
Shrieking for help and light across the stagnant water of his dark, sick mind, St. Anthony receives as an answer the echo of his fears: the laughter of the monsters created by his visions.
In arguing for a skeptical and consciously Freudian reading of his work, he is effectively denying both a literal and a figurative reading of the tradition, since there are neither demons nor appropriate representatives of the demonic in everyday life. In reducing them to the status of a self-provoked hallucination, though, he is in no way robbing the subject of its leverage. To the Surrealists, dream was not an escape, but a method, and at least for Ernst, his take on the tradition was not so much a subversion but a re-working of the theme, that transposed the power of the subject by directing it to an end that was more relevant to the 20th century mind.
Among the main detractors of the Bel Ami Competition was Salvador Dalí. While he would join his contemporaries in their opposition to organised religion for much of the earlier part of his career, the forties would find him retracing his steps back to Catholicism. This change was reflected in his art, which came to show increasingly and explicitly religious themes.
Like many of the other entrants, his submission was modelled on an earlier example, namely, that of Salvator Rosa, which depicts a kneeling St. Anthony holding a cross to ward off a menacing murder of demons. Though similar in composition, the implications of both paintings are at odds. As an artist, Rosa had the reputation of a spiritual renegade who was commonly identified as a precursor to the Romantics. His other works featured primarily classical themes and a preoccupation with the more subversive elements of Hellenic aesthetics. In his portraits, he cultivated a wild character, often painting himself with crowns of leaves and the features of a satyr.
Working nearly two centuries after the original Anthony movement took flight, the differences in style and motivation between artists are evident. Though hailing from the Italian Baroque, Rosa’s demons have more in common with those of Grünewald and Bosch than with his own compatriots’. His St. Anthony in particular seems more like a study in human frailty than in spiritual strength, with the saint sprawled across the forefront of the painting, reeling from the fiend before him. But where Rosa’s Anthony cowers, Dalí’s rises up, defiant. He is naked, but by no means vulnerable. His body is thin but grizzled, covered with lean, ropey muscles. It is now the demons’ turn to cower, rearing up and recoiling from the power of Christ.
It is also interesting to note that among the elements carried over into Dalí’s work are a rock and a skull, the symbolism of which underpins the ideological divide. The skull bears the suggestion of some sort of relic, possibly hinting at Anthony’s impending sainthood. The other motif, the rock, could almost be of Dalí’s invention, for while it’s featured in both paintings, Rosa’s is set on a mountainous landscape in which rocks are everywhere; while Dalí transposes the scene to the desert, where the rock is the only natural feature on an otherwise bare landscape (except for a scattering of pebbles), indicating its deliberate inclusion. Anthony leans on this rock, drawing strength from its presence in a clear nod to Matthew 16:18, which declares: “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church”.
Dalí’s decision to part from his fellow Surrealists and depict a triumphant saint rather than a suffering martyr is perhaps indicative of the artist’s struggle to overcome his demons. Shortly after the competition, he returned to France where, in 1947, he underwent an exorcism. Having spent so much of his career blurring the lines between Dalí the artist and Dalí the man, it is difficult to say for certain how sincere his return to Catholicism was, but the fact he did not publicise the incident is a testament to its authenticity. The revelation came to light much later through the letters of father Gabriele Maria Berardi, who performed the rite, and whom Dalí rewarded with one of his works: a sculpture of a crucifix that would be discovered among Bernardi’s personal effects after his death.
Leonora Carrington was another artist of the 1946 competition who struck a different note from the other entrants, not least because her painting only nominally dealt with the temptation theme. Instead it focused on the meditative St. Anthony, where he is shown in a contemplative pose, sitting by a river, in the company of his pig and surrounded by a curious assortment of creatures. He is set against a dreamlike backdrop of desert mountains and forests in the dimming evening light. The figures that populate this landscape are indicative of Carrington’s fascination with the occult, experimenting with imagery from the whole of Western esotericism. In her gloss, she identifies the figures to the right as the Queen of Sheba and her attendants, explaining how:
…[they] emerge in ever-decreasing circles out of a subterranean landscape towards the hermit. Their intention is ambiguous, their progress spiral.
The river too is supernatural, flowing miraculously from a clay jar held up high by a ram-headed man. Of this, Carrington just had to say that:
One could only quote the words of Friar Bacon’s brazen head: Time is – Time was – Time is past. I was always pleased with the simple idiocy of these words.
The reference is to Robert Green’s satirical play The Honourable History of Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (~1590), which follows the affairs of Dr. Roger Bacon, the 13th century scholastic philosopher and scientist reputed as a magician. The play was also the inspiration for Marlowe’s more famous The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. As to the brazen head, it was a magical device believed to have the power to answer any question that was asked of it. When tested, though, it would do so in the most general terms: “Time is – Time was – Time is past”. Bacon is but one of a number of figures reported to have had a brazen head, a list which also includes John Dee, Robert Grosseteste and Albertus Magnus.
Time is a core theme in Carrington’s St. Anthony in that it depicts a scene outside it, with the past and future events of his life taking place in the background, and fixed in place by the constants of the saint’s perpetual contemplation and his devotion to God. The river also separates periods in time, dividing the leafless pastoral scene of winter on the right from the lush summer vegetation to its left, perchance in a fanciful evocation of Heraclitus’s principle that no man ever sets foot in the same river twice. Anthony himself has three heads, in seeming reference to the three-fold nature of time as displayed in the painting. Curiously, Carrington’s was not the only three-headed Anthony to be featured in the competition: Guglielmi’s entry also has three faces, in alternating expressions of despair.
For her model, Carrington chose Hieronymus Bosch’s Temptation. This was his second major St. Anthony piece, after his much darker take on the subject in the Tryptich, including the demon attack. Although the demons aren’t absent from his later work, they are pushed to the fringes of the scene and reduced in stature to the scale of comic petty tyrants. Their puny assaults are met with indifference by the brooding saint, who may well know himself to be spiritually (if not physically) unassailable while in contemplation. Nor are the threats of material corruption lacking in Carrington’s work, either. They converge on the bald-headed girl to his left, whose temptations comprise sex and food. The artist remarks:
The bald-headed girl in the red dress combines female charm and the delights of the table. The mixture of the ingredients has overflowed and taken a greenish and sickly hue to the fevered vision of St. Anthony, whose daily meal consists on withered grass and tepid water with an occasional locust by way of an orgy.
Though food may have been deemed insufficiently dramatic for many of his artistic depictions, it does play a central part in his legend. During his trial by the devil in the desert, mirroring Christ’s own wilderness struggles, the saint is tempted by the promise of a silver dish bearing honey cakes. This theme was also taken up in Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony (1847), where food is presented as one of the most potent of worldly temptations, and as a barrier between man’s soul and the spiritual enlightenment he calls ‘the celestial light’.
When Carrington’s painting was sold at auction in 2014, the catalogue overtly stated that her Anthony could never have won the competition. Loew and Lewin were primarily concerned with the darker and more graphic elements of the St. Anthony tradition, in which Ernst’s creation fairly outdid almost everyone else’s. This also set into relief the most enduring aspect of the St. Anthony tradition throughout history—its preoccupation with shock.
While it would be trite to characterise the trend towards spectacle as a temptation in itself, there seems to be an undeniable macabre fascination at work in these pieces. This is at the very heart of the St. Anthony tradition in art: where an unforgiving critic may perceive it to be an elaborate excuse for artists to indulge their more inflammatory tastes while enjoying the patronage of clerical authorities; a more lenient one may see their forays into philosophical depravity as a test of spiritual courage comparable to Anthony’s own. The truth of the matter could be somewhere in between.
In any instance it is clear the artists themselves were never ignorant of the subject’s complexities: Bosch’s meditative Temptation can be seen as a counterweight to his unforgiving Tryptich, just as Grünewald’s brutal scene has its counterpart in the Isenheim Altarpiece evoking the more wholesome legend of St. Anthony and his meeting with St. Paul the Hermit, described by Jerome. In this respect, it may be possible to see that these historical contradictions thrived in the hands of the Surrealists, who sought to expand the scope of the St. Anthony legend into their terrifying century.
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Lucy Brady is an author and journalist specialising in art, literature and ghosts. She has written for 3:AM, Hexus Journal, Living in the Future and New Noise Magazine, and is a co-host of the WYRD_SIGNAL, a podcast exploring the stranger ideas of the last century through the medium of cult film.