de jonckheere old masters

Jan Mandijn

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

Panel: 45 x 62 cm


Although the death of Hieronymus Bosch in 1516 can be considered as the passing of one of the most original artists of the 16th century, his legacy was not lost. In fact the taste for boschian scenes continued to grow up until the end of the century and the demand for them inspired numerous artists of the 16th and 17th centuries to develop their talents in this extraordinary genre. The influence of Bosch is visible even in the work of great artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder. His reputation reached as far as Italy where Giorgio Vasari mentions him in his celebrated Vite. As an artist, Jan Mandijn developed the themes and tendencies of the master at the same time as lending them a highly personal style of his own.

The temptation of Saint Anthony is a frequently treated subject in Northern European art of the Renaissance. The theme of Saint Anthony touches upon the issue of testing of the faith, portraying the choice that is faced by every human being, between the path of vice or that of virtue. This confrontation between good and evil was represented in one of Bosch’s greatest masterpieces, the Temptation of Saint Anthony, a triptych currently housed in Lisbon [1]. In three painted panels, the Saint is depicted enduring various tricks of the devil in the midst of a tortured landscape inhabited by terrifying demons.

Mandijn appears to have drawn inspiration for the work presented here from the final panel of the Lisbon triptych in which the saint is confronted by the ultimate temptation: that of the flesh. The artist represents the fatal moment in which the saint is beckoned by the devil incarnated in the form of a beautiful nude woman accompanied by a second woman playing the lute. Music was associated with temptation as it has the power to captivate the senses. The nude woman offers the saint a mysterious globe on which a kingfisher perches. This bird appears in the iconography of Bosch, and it has been interpreted by some as a symbol of the man who does not forsake his bad habits. The gesture of the nude woman instantly calls to mind that of Eve offering the apple to Adam in reference to mankind’s original sin. Saint Anthony, his hand resting on an open Bible, but with his head turned towards the nude woman, faces the challenge of succumbing to lust or remaining righteous in his faith. The bottom of the painting is populated by monstrous creatures directly inspired by Bosch, who torment the saint. Strange hybrids of humans, animals and objects, these monsters are the representation of a chaos to come, as opposed to divine creation.

It is important to consider the subject of the painting in its historical context. In fact, in the 15th and 16th centuries, the figure of St. Anthony had a special relationship with ignis sacer or holy fire [2] (most specialists nowadays believe that holy fire was in reality ergotism, poisoning by a fungus ocurring on rye). This epidemic, which was very widespread at the time, led to the most agonizing symptoms such as convulsions, hallucinations, extreme burning sensations and gangrene which often required the amputation of limbs. The Order of St. Anthony became famous for their treatment of ergotism and gained such a reputation that the affliction also became known as "St Anthony’s fire". The suffering of the victims of ignis sacer was often compared to the fires of temptation that St. Anthony underwent in his confrontation with the devil. Moreover, the terrifying hallucinations brought about by the ignis sacer were often believed to be the work of the devil. It is therefore no surprise that the saint became the protector of all those afflicted with this disease.

The hellfire at the bottom left of this painting may also be a reference to the terrible burning sensation caused by St. Anthony’s fire. The same applies for the monsters that populate the composition, which appear to be the product of mental hallucinations.

Numerous elements of this painting also reflect the ancient tradition of alchemy. Whilst today it is described as a protoscience, it must be borne in mind that alchemy was a widespread practice in the 16th century, and was widely accepted as a true scientific discipline that has been recognised as the ancestor of modern chemistry. At the centre of the composition, we see two very strange figures. The artist appears to have incorporated a real-life tool, the athanor, a distillation furnace that was highly common in ancient laboratories transforming it into a habitation. The presence of such an object in the image however remains difficult to interpret. Was it meant to emphasise that the Order of St. Anthony used this type of instrument in preparing medicinal beverages to treat the victims of ergotism or, conversely, does it emphasise the ravages of a science often described by the church as close to diabolical?

The sphere that the nude woman holds may also suggest the alchemist’s glass bowl which was used to clean the ingredients. This nude woman holding a sphere also appears in a painting at the Mayer van der Bergh Museum, and a spherical object is also present in the illustrations of witches at this time, such as those depicted by Dürer [3]. Even more interesting still is the fact that this shape is also found in female embodiments of melancholy. Melancholia was considered to be the effect of the negative influence of the planet Saturn. It was also associated in fact with the ignis sacer as the putrification was explained as the effect of Saturnian forces. Finally, the tau of Saint Anthony also suggests this planet.

A striking composition with multilayered symbols, this painting sounds a warning against all manner of temptations and immerses the viewer in a dreamlike world of poisonous charms. Striking for its rich implications as well as its aesthetic quality, it creates a dramatic tension by placing the saint in the foreground, who like a spectator surveys the nightmarish landscape before him. A worthy heir of the legacy of Hieronymus Bosch, Jan Mandijn combines talent and spiritual depth to present us with an interpretation of the temptation that is extraordinarily vibrant and personal.

[1] H. Bosch, the Temptation of St. Anthony, oil on panel, 131.5 x 119 cm (central panel), 131.5 x 53 cm (side panels), Portugal, Lisbon, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga.
[2] Laurinda S. Dixon, “St. Anthony’s Triptych –An Apothecary’s Apotheosis” in Art Jounal, Vol. 44, No. 2, Art and Sciences : Part I : Life Sciences (Summer, 1984) p. 119-131.
[3] Albrecht Dürer, The Four Witches, engraving, 19 x 13.1 cm, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Provenance :
Private collection

same artist