Behind the Many Interpretations of The Temptation of St Anthony

March 11, 2017

The story of the temptation of St Anthony, told by his biographer St. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, elaborately describes and illustrates the Saint’s fight with the Devil and many of his demons, who have been sent to test his faith. So exotic were the temptations and so powerful and resilient St Anthony’s fight that his story has often been used in literature and art, notably in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Matthias Grunewald, Max Ernst, Paul Cezanne, and Salvador Dali, as a plot for a movie, and in the famous novel by Gustave Flaubert[1].

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Like many of the religious stories, the frequent use of The Temptation of St Anthony subject matter in paintings aimed to re-enforce the trust in God and to illustrate the power of faith and prayer. For many painters, this story allowed for various interpretations of his temptations. During the course of art’s history, we have some of the most elaborate ideas and presentations of The Temptation of St Anthony story, from the very detailed rendering of demons and animals to the surreal landscapes and magical creators.

The Temptation of St Anthony is a great subject matter interpreted in many different ways - Hieronymus Bosch Salvador Dali and Max Ernst all painted the subject of The Temptation of St Anthony - Bosch painted it as a triptych and he also painted Christ Carrying the Cross painting
Left: Schpngauer Martin - St Anthony. Image via / Right: Michelangelo - The Torment of Saint Anthony. Image via

The Story of St Anthony

Saint Anthony of Egypt was one of the first monks to retire to the desert to devote himself to fasting and prayer. As the religious hermit, he is considered the founder and father of organized Christian monasticism. During the time of his retreat to the desert, Saint Anthony began his legendary fight with the Devil, withstanding a series of temptations famous in Christian theology and iconography. The Devil’s assault on Anthony took the forms of visions, either seductive or horrible, and also in the form of actual physical assaults. At times, the temptations appeared as a monk bringing bread during his fasts, or in the form of wild beasts, women, or soldiers. From these psychic struggles, Anthony emerged as the sane and sensible father of Christian monasticism, and as a symbol of the never-dying force of the faith and of the help from the ultimate divine figure.

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Max Ernst - The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Image via

Visual Representations of The Temptation of St Anthony Through History

The earliest paintings to use this story were Italian frescoes of the 10th century. During Medieval times and later, the story of The Temptation of St Anthony was illustrated in various manuscripts and it also became a popular topic for the print media, especially the German engravings. In such images, Saint Anthony was often depicted with certain attributes which defined him, such as a bell, a pig, a book, and the Tau cross. He was commonly shown being tempted in the wilderness, often by naked women, and is associated with fire – Saint Anthony’s fire. Originating around the 1500s, some of the earliest paintings depicting the various temptations created by Martin Schongauer, Hieronymus Bosch, and Mathias Grunewald. For many, the painting created by Bosch is considered as the most fantastic one which proved to be a major source of inspiration for a number of artists[2].

The magical visions and hallucinations which defined the temptations for artists were sources of endless inspiration. Representing such demons, artists were allowed to play with their interpretations of the story and to even break or bend certain rules of the very strict and traditional art canons. Some artists chose to focus on presenting the Saint prior to the attack of the demons, as is the case with Bosch’s painting which differs greatly from the painters celebrated tryptic of the same subject. In more traditional paintings, certain symbols needed to be included to help associate the artwork with the story of the Christian monk, while at other times, and this is particularly true during the 20th century, painters truly let their imagination run[3].

Contact us and search for a list of all The Temptation of Saint Anthony artworks in our dedicated section page, including the temptation of st. anthony (dalí)
Salvador Dali - The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Image via

The Ultimate Painting

In 1946, the David L. Loew-Albert Lewin film production company held a contest for a painting on The Temptation of St Anthony theme. For Salvador Dali, this was to be his first and his last time he ever took part in a competition. The winner, whose artwork was used in the film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami was the pioneer figure of Dada and Surrealism movement, Max Ernst. Yet, the most well-known version of the St. Anthony’s faith triumphs over the temptations of horrors of sin and evil is, in fact, the version Dali painted.

Created in New York during the course of few days, Dali’s painting is frequently defined to stand as the precursor to the body of his piece commonly known as the classical period or the Dali Renaissance. The piece itself features a nude man, down on one knee, holding a cross up in front of a parade of elephants. Two of the elephants carry naked women on their backs, while the rest are carrying towers. The parade is led by a large horse and the entire scene is taking place in a surreal desert. Certain elements of the painting, such as the fact that elephants are carrying naked women on their backs, led the art historians to interpret the temptations of human sexuality as the major theme of the artwork. With the surreal nature of the appearance of the animal parade and the symbolic quality of the horse, standing for the idea of the temptation of power, and the towers symbolizing home comforts, the entire painting is drawing the public’s attention strongly on temptations. Regardless of the fact that Dali’s piece didn’t win the contest, it went on to become one of the artist’s most famous and influential pieces, marking the point when he embraced the stylistic choices associated with classicism[4].

The story of the Temptation of St. Anthony, as we have attempted to showcase for sure, is one of the most repeated subjects in arts. Presented across a number of art disciplines it carries with it, not only the freedom to play with the representation of the demons but a very important moral message which has helped to build the idea of a proper and moral life for many.

 Editors’ Tip: The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Modern Library Classics)

A book that deeply influenced the young Freud and was the inspiration for many artists, The Temptation of Saint Anthony was Flaubert’s lifelong work, thirty years in the making. Based on the story of the third-century saint who lived on an isolated mountaintop in the Egyptian desert, it is a fantastical rendering of one night during which Anthony is besieged by carnal temptations and philosophical doubt. This Modern Library Paperback Classic reproduces the distinguished Lafcadio Hearn translation, which translator Richard Sieburth calls “a splendid period piece from one of America’s premier translators of nineteenth-century French prose. In Lafcadio Hearn’s Latinate rendering, Flaubert’s experimental drama of the modern consciousness reads as weirdly as its oneiric original.”


  1. Flaubert, G., The Temptation of St. Anthony, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016
  2. Rembert, V., P., Bosch, Parkstone International, 2012
  3. La Salle University Art Museum Strategic Ambiguity: The Obscure, Nebulous, and Vague in Symbolist Prints,, 2013
  4. Shanes, E., Dali, Parkstone International, 2011

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Hieronymous Bosch - The Temptation of St. Anthony. Image via

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