Gospel in art: Feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot

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The Torment of Saint Anthony, attributed to Michelangelo © Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Source: Christian art

Gospel of January 17, 2022 – Mark 2:18-22

One day when the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting, people approached Jesus and said to him: ‘Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but not your disciples?’ Jesus replied, “Surely the assistants of the bridegroom would never think of fasting while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot think of fasting. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then on that day they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth onto an old coat; if he does, the patch comes off, the new one from the old, and the tearing becomes worse. And no one puts new wine into old skins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins also. No! New wine, skins fresh!

Reflection on painting

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot (251-356 AD) or Saint Anthony the Great, as he is also called. Born in Egypt, he is considered the founder of Christian monasticism. His radical approach to discipleship has had a lifelong impact on the Church. Born around 251 AD to wealthy parents, he roamed the lands around Cairo. Meanwhile, the early Christian Church was rapidly spreading its influence across the vast swathes of the Roman Empire. While the empire officially remained pagan, Christianity remained a persecuted religion. However, Anthony would live to see the conversion of Emperor Constantine in AD 312 and implant Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Anthony himself would establish something just as enduring by becoming the spiritual father of the monastic communities that have existed throughout the history of the Church.

Anthony fought in famous spiritual battles, against unseen forces seeking to lead him away from the beautiful path he had chosen. Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony is a powerful depiction of this spiritual warfare. It is Michelangelo’s earliest known work of art, painted when he was just 13 years old (from an engraving by Martin Schongauer). We see Saint Anthony attacked by demons and evil fantasy creatures. In the 4th century, Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-298 – 373 AD) wrote Saint’s life Anthony. In it he describes how Anthony had a vision that he had been suspended in the air and then attacked by demons because he was able to resist their temptations.

Antony is often mistakenly considered the first Christian monk, but as his biography of Athanasius and other sources clearly show, there were many ascetics before him. However, Antony was among the first known to travel to the desert around 270 AD. Our Michelangelo painting is a powerful representation of how we too can sometimes struggle against evil spiritual forces. While the depiction might be somewhat extreme for our current tastes, it still conveys the inner turmoil we can all feel at times. It is truly extraordinary that Michelangelo was only 13 when he painted this, as it shows not only technical skill, but also already a deep understanding of spiritual forces and battles.

CONNECTIONS

Today’s story – https://christian.art/en/daily-gospel-reading/1056
Christian art – www.christian.art

Keywords: Christian art, Patrick van der Vorst, Michelangelo

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