Tentazioni di sant’Antonio Abate (c.1598)

Carracci, Annibale (1560-1609)

Tentazioni di sant’Antonio Abate (Christ appearing to Saint Anthony Abbot during his Temptation)
Oil on copper, 49.5 x 34.4 cm
National GalleryLondon

A bearded man in a hair robe is being violently threatened by a horde of demonic creatures: a lion with horns; a man with claws and bat wings; a bizarre scaly quadruped with a lizard’s tail, wings and a human head; and a monstrous face with fangs waving a snake. He has cast aside his book and is gazing up at the heavens for help, where Christ has appeared reclining on a cloud. The scene is set in front of the mouth of a cave, itself part of a broad landscape.

This small picture is one of a number of works on copper that Annibale Carracci painted shortly after his arrival in Rome in 1594, another being The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (‘The Montalto Madonna’). It tells the story of the temptation of Saint Anthony Abbot, an early Christian monk and one of the so-called ‘Desert Fathers’ (hermits who lived ascetic lives in the deserts of third– and fourth-century Egypt). Anthony was famous for having resisted several attempts by the devil to shake him out of his monastic virtue. According to his contemporary biographer, Saint Athanasius, the devil first tried afflicting him with boredom, laziness and sexual fantasies; and, when these failed, resorted to beasts and monsters.

This dramatic subject proved irresistible to artists and was especially popular with Netherlandish and German painters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Martin Schongauer. In the sixteenth century northern artists living in Rome, such as Paul Bril and Adam Elsheimer, also painted versions of the scene, with which Annibale was perhaps familiar.

Annibale’s version is a supreme example of compressed narrative, achieved through dramatic lighting and a tightly controlled composition. To compensate for the painting’s vertical format he has built the composition on strong diagonals. The line of the saint’s body is echoed by that of the demon, by the outline of the rock and by the figures of Christ and the angels hovering above. Colour and light are also used to elucidate the story. The subdued earthy tones of the landscape, Saint Anthony Abbot’s hairy outfit and the flesh and fur of the monsters in the lower half, where dots of light glisten on teeth, eyes and claws, contrast vividly with the clear pink and blue of Christ’s robes, the fluffy white clouds and golden hair of the angels in the upper part of the painting. A bright light falls from the right, at its strongest on Christ’s legs and softer in tone as it illuminates the central monster’s outstretched arm and clawed hand. The cave itself acts as a theatrical backdrop, pushing the principal characters to the front of the picture.

We are not sure who this work was painted for – it was recorded in the Villa Borghese, Rome, in 1650, and was perhaps made for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V. In 1672 the biographer Giovan Pietro Bellori described it enthusiastically in his list of paintings Annibale Carracci made for private clients. (NG)