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17.1.08

Feast of St. Anthony of Egypt

One of the most influential figures in the history of Christian monasticism, St. Anthony was an Egyptian hermit, who lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. His life was recorded by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, and most later monks saw him as an important model. Like several saints who came after him (Augustine, Francis, and others), Anthony's call to holiness began with a radical and literal personal response to a line of scripture: "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). Giving away all he owned and sealing himself inside an abandoned Roman fort in the desert, Anthony embraced an ascetic life, enduring what Athanasius described, in increasingly fanciful ways, the temptations and mockery of the devil. These episodes in Anthony's vita are the ones that have fascinated artists and writers, from the Middle Ages on: from the triptych by Hieronymous Bosch (detail shown) to Gustave Flaubert's La tentation de Saint Antoine to the surreal canvas by Salvador Dalí.

Partially for having endured the most horrible trials during those lonely years, Anthony is the patron invoked by those suffering from skin diseases and other painful health conditions. Anthony's relics were eventually transferred to Constantinople and, from there, to the French monastery of La-Motte-Saint-Didier. That house was later known as Saint-Antoine-en-Dauphiné, where the relics became associated with miraculous healing of ergotism ("St. Anthony's Fire"). The hospital order of Saint Anthony was born there and spread throughout Europe founding hospitals served by monks. One of them, at Isenheim, commissioned a rather striking altarpiece from Matthias Grünewald. Enjoy the feast day, and watch out for the flying fish!

Image: Hieronymous Bosch, Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony (right wing), 1505-06, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon (thanks to Web Gallery of Art)

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