de jonckheere old masters

Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of St Anthony

Panels: 115,4 x 43 cm


During the Renaissance, at a time when society was in complete metamorphosis, the Temptation of St Anthony was one of the most popular themes. The author of the diptych we are presenting here pays homage to Hieronymus Bosch by copying one of his most famous paintings: the Temptation of St Anthony, a triptych kept at Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art. Painted ca. 1500, Friedländer indicates the existence of six replicas of the complete altarpiece, five of the central panel and one of the wings. We also know of some further 20 copies. It is therefore highly likely that the artist had access to Hieronymus Bosch’s work, or at least one of the numerous copies circulating in the Netherlands.

Although differing in size, our panels are very similar to the original version by the master of 's-Hertogenbosch. The most obvious reinterpretation of the original work by the painter can be seen in his rendering of the landscape. In the panel on the left, the artist has removed the shipwrecks and draws the viewer’s gaze to the untamed fire that seems to be bursting out of the surrounding mountains. The resulting smoke reaches up to the winged monsters situated in the top part of the painting. In Bosch’s work, the fire is only present in the central panel. Through this addition, the painter warns us that the disease, referred to as St Anthony’s fire by the chroniclers of the time, extends well beyond the town itself. If we look at the right-hand panel, we can see that the buildings are painted in a slightly different manner.

In an attempt to make St Anthony reject his faith, the devil brings in a multitude of monstrous creatures. The legend describes how the saint withdrew from the world of sin to go into the desert in Egypt and devote his life to prayer. There, he was assailed by an army of demons who had come to subject him to torture and temptation. These two panels depict several scenes from the life of St Anthony described in The Golden Legend. While the left-hand panel illustrates the demons attacking and fighting the hermit and abandoning him, the right-hand panel portrays St Anthony’s resistance to the temptations of the flesh.

In the foreground on the left, the unconscious saint is supported by his companions after having suffered the attacks of the demonic creatures. Recognisable by their cowls, two Antonine monks and a valet are fetching the hermit who has been beaten by the devil’s servants. The group is crossing a wooden bridge bearing three hellish creatures who are deep in discussion. They are joined by the famous “bird with a letter”, a monster carrying a stamped document in its beak. Here, this creature plays the role of the devil’s messenger. It moves around on ice skates, which had a metaphorical meaning at the time. The belief was that people moved around on skates when they veered off from the righteous path. On his left, a robin, an evil bird, devours its young, standing on the cracked egg from which the newborns have hatched. The egg, an emblem of black magic and the devil, is a recurring element in the universe of Bosch and his followers. Moreover, the cracked open egg alludes to birth defects. The artist’s imagination is also expressed in the appearance of evil beings such as the armour-plated fish, a symbol of envy and lust. The saint’s temptations are also reflected by the presence of a diabolical trap in the form of a squatting giant, which is both a hill and a roof, and a burrow and a brothel. This terrestrial scene makes way for a second legendary scene taking place in the sky: "…as the angels were carrying him into the heavens, the demons tried to prevent the saint from passing, reminding him of the sins he had committed since his birth”. We perceive the saint praying, lying on an imaginary animal and surrounded by flying sea monsters. The artist decided to portray the moment after the fight, when the saint is transported by prayer.

In the right-hand panel, the holy man is sitting and holding open the book of Scriptures. He doesn’t let himself be tempted by the apparitions surrounding him and finds inner peace. The devil-queen from the Hermit Saints triptych by Bosch is presented here, surrounded by her satanic court. The seductress is standing close to a hollow tree covered with a very shiny piece of red fabric, where servants and creatures are hurrying towards, in search of wine. Standing and holding a practically transparent veil in front of her genitals, the seductress faces St Anthony. Feminine beauty, the instrument of the devil in Bosch’s world, is the most famous temptation the saint is faced with. He turns away from the obscenity and the torments inflicted upon him by the demons. In the foreground, we can see a set table supported by naked men. One of them is wearing an Antonine's hood while another one is crippled and leaning on a vase. Bread and wine lie on the table, which complete the scene of lust taking place higher up.

Here, the painter uses the theme of the Temptation of St. Anthony as a pretext to create a world filled with magic and alchemy, populated with infernal monsters and creatures of every kind. Through the artist’s imagination, the devil does its utmost to make the hermit turn his back on his faith. However, despite his endeavours, the ingenuity he employs to make the saint succumb to temptation is all in vain.

Provenance :
Private collection, France.