|Bartolome Esteban Murillo, St. Anthony of Padua|
Spanish, ca, 1660
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes
Among the "things" I knew were that:
- He is the ever popular saint who helps you find lost items.
|Guercino, St. Anthony of Padua|
|Donatello, Miracle of the Mule|
Padua, Basilica of San Antonio
- St. Anthony dressed in vestments,
- A man with a load of hay or straw over his shoulder,
- Another man holding a bowl of some sort and
- A donkey or mule.
|Jean Bourdichon, Miracle of the Mule|
from Grandes heures de Anne de Bretagne
French (Tours), 1503-1508
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 9474, fol. 187v
So, a donkey (or mule or horse) was denied food for three days to make sure that it would be really hungry on the day appointed for the test. Then the beast was taken to the location for the test, usually said to be the town square, but in Donatello’s image apparently a church. Food was offered to the hungry animal. At that point Anthony raised the Host and prayed “Creature of God, in His name, I command you to come here to adore Him, so that it will give truth to all, of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Surprising the unbelievers and the skeptics the animal ignored the food in order to approach Anthony and kneel before the Host, thus proving that even dumb animals believed in the transformation of bread into the Body of Christ. The heretic who had challenged Anthony came to believe through this miracle. 1
|Domenico Beccafumi, Miracle of the Mule|
Paris, Musee du Louvre
The truth behind the charming legend is that Anthony was a theologian, teacher and talented preacher. But he’s not Italian, as his name seems to suggest, and he began life with a different name, not Anthony.
He was actually born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195 to a family of the minor nobility and was baptized Ferdinand. Young Ferdinand was well educated in the cathedral school of Lisbon and at age 15 became an Augustinian canon. As an Augustinian he continued his education, until exposed a few years later to some of the early followers of St. Francis of Assisi. He joined the Franciscans in 1221 with the intention of becoming a missionary to the Muslims of North Africa. It is at this point that he adopted the name of Anthony. On his way to his mission in Morocco his ship was driven off course and was unable to dock until it arrived in Messina in Sicily.
|Anthony Van Dyck, Miracle of the Mule|
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
|Joseph Heintz the Younger, Miracle of the Mule|
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo
His reputation was so high that within a few years of his death a basilica in his honor was begun in Padua (1238-1310) and within a century thereafter Donatello was commissioned to create the beautiful altar from which our panel comes (1444-1450). It is interesting to note that this particular legend (and those in the other panels that also appear on the altar) had grown up within a very short span of time, between 1231 and 1444.
|The altar in situ|
Padua, Basilica of San Antonio
The altar was moved at least once from its inception (in 1579-1582) and was redesigned in 1895. 3
Although this and other legendary miracles of St. Anthony (such as his sermon to the fish) have been pictured through the centuries, it is that other image, St. Anthony with the Child Jesus, which has come to dominate the iconography of the saint. That image is derived from another legend of St. Anthony and emphasizes his reverence for the humility of Christ who came into the world as a humble Child, as well as his personal holiness. However, the tendency for pictures based on this legend to become sentimentalized and “prettified” has led to their being widely disseminated, to the point where this is the image that now comes to mind when one thinks of St. Anthony. As such, it has pushed out the images that, although also legendary, are based on themes that are closer to the content of St. Anthony’s active life of preaching and teaching. To that extent I fear that St. Anthony of Padua has been poorly served by history, by art history and by popular piety.
© M. Duffy, 2011-2016
_______________________________________________________________1. Antony, C.M., St. Anthony of Padua, the Miracle Worker (1195-1231), London, Longmans, 1911, pp. 38-41.
2. Butler, A. Lives of the Saints, ed. M. Walsh (1984), New York, Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 179-180.
3. Information on the subsequent history of the altar comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum website.