The Temptation of Saint Anthony was one of David Teniers the Younger’s favourite subjects and he revisited it throughout his career. In fact, among his religious paintings, The Temptation of Saint Anthony constitutes the largest homogenous group of works, with examples dating from 1635 to the mid-1660s. Initially recorded by Athanasius of Alexandria, the saint’s legend was popularised across Europe through various vernacular translations of his Vita Antonii and Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend.
In Teniers’ composition, Saint Anthony is seated in his cave before an opening, a devotional book in his hand. He looks at a skull beside him, 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. A throng of unnatural creatures and demons invades 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. 84-5). A number of the infernal creatures in this work recur in other versions of the scene by Teniers, generally taking the form of anthropomorphic animals, fish and reptiles. 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 these subjects for subsequent generations of artists, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son Jan Brueghel the Elder. 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.
The number of times Teniers returned to the subject 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.