Today is the feast day of Saint Anthony the Great. Here he is in a painting by Piero di Cosimo, who I mentioned earlier this month. He lived all of his life in Egypt, was born around the year 251 and died in about 356. So he lived to a ripe old age. Saint Anthony was one of the Desert Fathers, which means he was one of the first of a group of people who took themselves off into the desert, seeking a life of quiet contemplation. Over time, he gained followers and a community grew up around him. That’s really where the whole idea of monasteries came from, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Saint Anthony lived in the desert for years. He lived in an empty tomb. He lived in an old Roman fort. People living nearby kindly brought him bread to eat, but he didn’t want to see anyone, so they had to pass in to him through a crack in the wall. Unsurprisingly, for a person living alone, out in the hot desert, eating not very much, Anthony was visited several times by demons. The demons tormented him horribly. Sometimes in the form of beautiful women and sometimes in the shape of horrible monsters. The torment and temptations of Saint Anthony have been fantastic subjects for artists, as it meant they could really let their imagination run riot. Hieronymus Bosch did a whole triptych, but it’s far too large and detailed to take in here, so below are a few of my favourites. They’re all from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first film to be made on a religious subject was called ‘The Temptation of Saint Anthony’. It was made by Georges Méliès in 1898. If you can spare just over a minute, you can find it here.
He is also much associated with pigs. The origins of this are unclear. Perhaps he worked for a while with pigs in the desert. He may have been attacked by a demon in the form of a pig. Maybe he just had a pet pig. There is even a wild story about the time Saint Anthony stole fire from Hell. It is not unlike the story of Prometheus and it goes like this: Saint Anthony and his pig turn up at the gates of Hell. The demons tell him his pig can come in, but not him. But the pig causes complete mayhem and they have to let him into Hell to get the pig under control. They take his stick away from him and throw it in the fire, but he explains he needs it to control the pig, so they give it back to him. He uses his stick to calm the pig and they are both thrown out of Hell and told never to return. But smouldering inside the stick, is a little bit of stolen fire.
Saint Anthony left the desert in 311 and went to Alexandria, where he tried very hard indeed to get himself martyred during the Diocletian Persecutions. But it didn’t go as he planned and he returned to the desert. There, he lived a simple life, cultivating a garden and weaving mats from rushes. He was soon followed by others and, together with his disciples built up quite a community. After he died, he was buried, secretly, on a mountain top. But some fifty years later, it seem his remains were rediscovered and moved to Alexandria, then to Constantinople, and finally to an abbey in south-eastern France, some time in the eleventh century. There, he managed to somehow miraculously cure two local noblemen of ergotism. This is a terrible thing, caused by fungus on grain, which makes people hallucinate, but is also a horrible skin disease. After that, the disease itself became known as Saint Anthony’s Fire and the monks at the abbey founded the ‘Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony’ who specialised in the nursing of the victims of skin diseases.
Due to their success, further hospitals were opened all over Europe. By the year 1254, there was a branch of the Brothers of Saint Anthony in London. Their hospital was in the a parish called St Benet Fink and was close to what is now Threadneedle Street, but which was formally called Pig Street. So here, there is another connection between Saint Anthony and pigs. Every time a litter of pigs went to the London livestock market, if there was one that was considered too small to be worth selling, it was given to the brotherhood. They would put a bell on it, so everyone knew it was theirs, and it would be allowed to roam freely around the city. The Saint Anthony pigs could rummage around on dung heaps and generally scavenge where ever they liked. They often did quite well, as it was considered an act of charity to feed one of them. The pigs would soon recognise the people who fed them and follow them about whining until they got something. This gave rise to the phrase ‘a tantony pig’ being used to describe a person who blindly but fleetingly follows others.