Monday, April 18, 2011

The Torment of Saint Anthony

Daily burdens, obstacles, and challenges are things we all face as we traverse through life.  It begins when our alarms go off--that moment where we roll over to turn it off and say to ourselves, "I really don't feel like getting up just yet."  From that moment on and throughout the entire day, we all face moments where are patience, resilience, and emotional and mental agility are tested.  We deal with getting ready for the day, a last minute phone call, traffic on the way to work, finding a parking space, reading through email, pecking away at the tasks at hand, and everything else.  These are all weights that can drag us down yet we each have a choice for how we will react.

Despite how easy it may seem to lose our cool in the face of one of these daily challenges, humans defy the stereotype and in general tend to keep their focus on reaching the finishing line.  This, however, can become cluttered depending upon the amount of challenges faced and sheer volume of burdens we carry.  It seems like the more responsibility we have, the more we're tempted to lose hope, become angry, and give up on making it to the end.  It takes an incredible amount of determination and emotional fortitude to get through some days and where each of us has a distinct advantage is in the lives of others who have long survived or passed on from much worse fates.

The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) is one of his first known paintings and shows Saint Anthony being accosted by demons in midair as he travels through a desert.  Known for his grandiose preaching and speaking voice, Saint Anthony (born Fernando Martins de Bulhões) was one of the quickest of all religious figures to be given sainthood.  His humble beginning and struggle to become a member of the Franciscan Order was immediately quenched when he was called upon to speak to a group of visiting Dominican Friars in the early 13th Century.  From that point on, Saint Anthony quickly become one of the most beloved and admired preachers of his time.  One year after passing away from dropsy at the age of 36, Pope Gregory IX canonized the influential man from Portugal.

I immediately feel the chaos of Saint Anthony's torment poignantly illustrated by Michelangelo.  In fact, I can even sense the fear of being so relentlessly agonized.  Using vivid interpretation and amazing detail, Michelangelo depicts what appears to be nine demons of varying type clawing and pulling at Saint Anthony as they carry him through the air.  It was implied that Saint Anthony's holiness meant he traveled from one place to another on the wings of angels but in this moment, he is shown fighting for his life as evil makes every attempt to assuage him from his focus and determination.

Looking at each demon, I can easily sense the dark forces each represents.  Not all are winged and neither of the beings looks the same as the other, but they all share a common purpose which is clearly illustrated.  And yet, the face of Saint Anthony is without pain or frustration.  In fact, he seems to show a steely resolve, deep compassion, and a sense of hope he will reach his destination and be able to succeed in his goals.  This can be seen in other places besides his face, as well.  For instance, one demon clutches Saint Anthony's right wrist and the stick he's holding yet he merely hangs on to it with three fingers.  Meanwhile, another demon pulls on his robe with all its might as yet another attempts to remove his aureole.  Saint Anthony, though appearing a bit weighted down, keeps his gaze off to the horizon and not upon the tainted distractions surrounding him.

Michelangelo was indeed one of the world's most beloved artists and what may shock you about this painting is the fact he finished it when he was merely 12 or 13 years old.  His works are incredibly well known but it seems this particular piece was a shining example of what his talents would mean to billions of people.  And the symbolism doesn't have to directly relate to those who are religious or of the cloth.  Each one of us can empathize with having moments in life where we feel utterly battered and bruised but we all most assuredly can think of someone else who faced much more desperate odds.  What can't be emotionally ignored or forsaken, however, is our predestination to be tormented in some way.  Knowing ahead of time, though, is certainly the beginning to ensuring you are prepared and have the strength to remain hopeful.


  1. nice blog you have !

  2. You're actually confusing this Saint Anthony with Anthony of Padua. I made that same mistake before doing a little more research. The Anthony in this painting was a desert hermit who lived in Egypt during the 3rd and 4th centuries, way before there was a Franciscan or Dominican Order.