The Temptation of Anthony has provided fertile material for artistic invention and exploration since the Middle Ages. Initially recorded by Athanasius of Alexandria, the Saint’s legend was popularised across Europe through various vernacular translations of his Life of St Anthony and Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.
David Teniers the Younger was clearly captivated by this particular episode in the Saint’s legend, since he revisited the subject throughout his career; indeed, among his religious paintings, The Temptation of Saint Anthony constitutes the largest homogenous group of works.
His first dated version was made in 1635 and the artist was still painting the subject thirty years later in 1665. The number of times Teniers returned to it also indicates how popular it was among his patrons, both as a moralising subject and as an opportunity of presenting the curious and the unknown, akin, perhaps, with the fashion for Wunderkammer, or 'cabinet of curiosities', which had become increasingly popular among wealthy collectors with a fascination for rare, beautiful and exotic objects.
Saint Anthony kneels in front of a rocky ledge, a devotional book in his hand. Before him is a skull, representing his contemplation of death and his repentance, and a brown terracotta water jug, symbolic of the saint’s ascetic, eremitic lifestyle. He wears a dark blue habit, with a prominent ‘tau’ cross on the shoulder, the emblem adopted by the Order of Saint Anthony on their founding in 1095. Demons invade the hermit’s cave: ‘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’ (J. de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Lives of the Saints, ed. G.V. O’Neill, Cambridge, 1914, pp. 84-85). A number of the clamouring devils in this work recur in other versions of the scene by Teniers, generally taking the form of anthropomorphic animals, fish and reptiles. One which features in almost every rendition of the subject is the egg-like demon with the feet and head of a chicken, which perches, relieving itself, on the rim of the Saint’s water jug. Teniers’ invention of these demonic types owes a clear debt to the work of Hieronymus Bosch, whose depictions of wild multitudes of demons laid the foundations for the treatment of comparable subjects for subsequent generations of artists. In this work, the figure with a skeletal head seated in the bottom right of the panel, holding a small trumpet and wearing a hooded habit like that of Saint Anthony, relates to the figure of a musician with the head of a horse’s skull, which frequently features in Bosch’s work. Likewise, the fish-like creatures hovering in the air find their prototypes in Bosch’s paintings, for example in his Triptych of the Temptation of St Anthony
(Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga).
The composition relates closely, in reverse, to a drawing now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne (fig. 1), which may have served as the basis for this and other small treatments of the subject.