Monday, June 13, 2011

St. Anthony’s Image and When It Got That Way

Happy Feast of St. Anthony! After completing the article of yesterday regarding the Miracle of the Mule, I became intrigued to find out when it was that the popular image of St. Anthony, the one with the Infant Jesus, began to drive out the other possible images of the saint.

From a somewhat cursory review of the iconography of St. Anthony, it appears that up till about 1600 the iconography of St. Anthony was quite varied.


Simone Martini, St. Anthony of Padua and
St. Francis
Italian, 1317
Assisi, Basilica of St. Francis
The earliest images showed a very serious St. Anthony, sometimes in company with St. Francis, as would be appropriate for an early Franciscan saint.

Sometimes he is seen alone or with various donors.


Benozzo Gozzoli, St. Anthony of
Padua with Angels and Donors
Italian, 1450s
Rome, S. Maria in Aracoeli














Almost always he is carrying a book, an obvious reference to his acclaimed knowledge of the Bible and to his own writings. Sometimes he also carries a burning flame, probably symbolic of his preaching ministry.

From the 15th century he also appears in the genre known as the Sacra Conversazione,  the Madonna and Child shown in company with several saints. This appears to be the period when the lily first appears in addition to the book. The lily is a traditional symbol of purity. 

Giorgione, Madonna and Child with
St. Anthony of Padua and St. Roch
Madrid, Museo del Prado
But it is not until the years around 1600 that the iconography of St. Anthony with the Christ Child begins to appear, especially in Spain. The image recalls an apparition of the Christ Child to St. Anthony that may or may not be a legend and which is claimed to have taken place in France (though there is also an Italian location that claims it). One night, a bright light was observed in St. Anthony’s room in a house where he was staying. The householder went to investigate this unusual occurrence and saw St. Anthony holding the Divine Child (from whom the light was emanating) in his arms.

Antionio de Pereda, St. Anthony of Padua
Spanish, Second Half 17th century
 Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts





Murillo, St. Anthony of Padua
Spanish, Second half of 17th Century
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes,














This became by far the most widely known image of St. Anthony from the seventeenth century to our own day. Over time, the details of the event (the room, the light) were replaced by a simplified image of St. Anthony standing, holding the lily, the book and the Holy Child.

Ingres, St. Anthony of Padua
Design for a window
French, Second quarter
19th century
Paris, Musee du Louvre

© M. Duffy, 2011