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Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Temptation of Saint Anthony 2

In the 3rd Century, Saint Anthony the Egyptian renounced all worldly joys, went off into the Arabian Desert to live the life of a hermit.

He had a terrible time of it.

Often he would glance up from his prayers to see Satan hovering before him in the gloom of his abandoned fort. And Satan was hard to recognise. Usually he looked like the things Anthony missed most.

In The Temptation of Saint Anthony Flaubert portrays a man who tries to be a saint, but is pulled in the other direction by the devil because he is only a human. It is a clear example of good versus evil and how powerful evil can be.

The idea for the book was born in 1845 when Flaubert visited Italy with his family. He, his sister and his parents travelled there on his sister`s honeymoon. He saw a painting attributed to Breughel in the Palazzo Balbi (now the Palazzo Reale) in Genova that illustrated the seductions of a hermit.

When Flaubert presented The Temptation of Saint Anthony to Bouilhet and Du Camp in 1849 they are reputed to have advised him to throw such lyrical nonsense on the fire and write a realist novel instead.

In a letter written to a friend he confessed that he would like to "arrange the saints adventures for the theatre".

Flaubert said:

"It is the work of all my life, since the idea first came to me in 1845, in Genoa, in front of a [table] of Breughel, and since that time I have never stopped thinking about it and doing related readings."

It was a book which Gustave Flaubert spent practically his whole life fitfully working on, in three versions he completed in 1849, 1856 (extracts published at the same time) and 1872 before publishing the final version in 1874.

He had made previous attempts at this but this proved to be his best one. Books of this theme were not uncommon in his day.

As regards the painting Flaubert saw and which led to his lasting epiphany and inspiration, it is not at all clear what has happened to it. It would appear that it is no longer in Genova although it was probably there in 1946. Further, it has now been attributed not to Breughel but to Jan Mandyn. It is apparently now in a private collection in Rome.

The life of St. Antony exercised great influence upon the development of the ascetic life in the Church.

Its influence has been renewed as a parable on temptation especially sexual temptation.

For excellent articles on the theme of The Temptation of St Anthony in art, see Monsterbrains

Also Giornale Nuovo

For the Life of St Anthony by St Athanasius, see Athanasius of Alexandria:
VITA S. ANTONI [Life of St. Antony] (written between 356 and 362)


See also this blog for more modern examples of the treatment of the theme by Dali and others