The Temptation of Saint Anthony was a favorite subject of the great Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450/1460-1516), for whom the saint's story represented victory over the Devil. He treated the episode in a number of different versions, of which the most ambitious is that dated 1505 (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon, inv. 1498 Pint), a work much admired and copied by Bosch's followers through the end of the 16th century. For Bosch, the saint's story was ideally suited to the his personal belief that a blissful eternity in Heaven awaited those who led an honorable life, while the torments of Hell would be retribution for a life of sin. To convey this message, Bosch created a richly inventive repertoire of fantastical motifs symbolic of the torments of hell. Lurid, bizarre and often dreamlike, Bosch's imagery has fascinated and confounded viewers for centuries.
The present painting is replete with such imagery, much of it drawn from known works by the master. The viewer is reminded of the terrors that await those who succumb to worldly temptations: the barren, hollow tree at the center symbolizes spiritual corruption, its dead branches evoking malignancy and death. Black birds, like that pecking at a corpse dangling over one of the tree's upper branches, suggest death and rotting flesh. Knives, carried by several figures in the picture, and spiked wheels, like that next to the disembodied head at center left, represent the tortures of hell awaiting earthly sinners.
For Bosch, punishable sins came in many forms. Drunkenness is represented by the overturned jug, upon which is perched a spoonbill bird, a medieval symbol for a drunkard. Figures in the boat at right also take part in drunken revelry, hoisting their jugs in the air. Inside the canopied rotunda at left, demonic figures enjoy a gluttonous feast and the eggs at left are hatching with tiny devilish beasts, the product of some sexual perversion.
On top of the rotting tree at upper center, an unholy union takes place: a woman, carrying the lute, a symbol of lust, seduces a priestly figure, a vignette reflecting the anti-clerical views that Bosch is thought to have held. To this priest's right, a serpent-tailed demon reads from a book, signifying the misreading of scripture that results from the corruption of the Church. Owls, frequent medieval symbols for heresy, are depicted throughout the painting, underscoring the theme.
Surrounded by worldly temptations and wickedness, the monumental figure of Saint Anthony stands upright and calm, a model for achieving salvation through the power of prayer. In Bosch's day Saint Anthony became a source of comfort and salvation, especially when a terrifying disease, then known as 'Saint Anthony's Fire', was eradicating the populations of entire villages. Now known to be ergot poisoning, a form of chemically-induced psychosis produced by ingesting mold-contaminated grain, the disease was named for the monks of the Order of Saint Anthony, who were particularly effective at treating the ailment. For those suffering from Saint Anthony's Fire, the hallucinations it caused must have produced vivid and fantastical demonic images much like those in Bosch's paintings. The burning town in the background, frequently seen in his work, may refer to this dreaded condition, which was understood at the time as a punishment sent by God.
The blend of realism and visionary fantasy that characterizes Bosch's works reappeared a few centuries later in the art of Victor Hugo (1802-1885). One of the great writers of the Romantic period in France, Hugo was also a prolific visual artist whose work was much admired by his contemporaries. While in political exile from France between 1851 and 1870, Hugo made blot-inspired pen and ink drawings -- dreamlike and fantastic images of shipwrecks, gallows, haunted landscapes, and monstrous creatures -- that were later greatly venerated by the Surrealists. It is not surprising, then, that Hugo would have been attracted to the present painting, which he purchased in Brussels in the 1860s, at a time when the picture was thought to be by Bosch himself.