I recently saw the vast exhibition of drawings and sketches by Michelangelo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It took 20 years to prepare. Included is Michelangelo’s painting The Torment of Saint Anthony. The serene saint is elevated by a flock of demons worthy of Hieronymus Bosch who claw him and beat him with clubs.
The small panel is a reminder of how venerated and popular a subject was Anthony the Abbot, who died in Egypt, nearly a centenarian, in 356.
On January 17 both Catholics and Orthodox celebrate the feast of St Anthony, also called “the Great” and “of the Desert”. One of the earliest founders of monasticism, Anthony went into the desert to live an ascetic life. He was sorely tempted by the enemy of the soul in the form of various beasts and survived on tiny quantities of food.
He is often depicted with a pig, probably because in tales of his life he had once been a swineherd. Anthony is also invoked as a patron of those who suffer from skin diseases such as shingles and ergotism, also known as St Anthony’s Fire.
Speaking of pigs, during my many years in Italy, I once stood in cassock, surplice, stole and biretta outside a little church dedicated to Anthony on his feast and blessed pigs and horses, which were brought by with great festivity, including banners, draperies and the local brass band.
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