Sunday, June 12, 2011

The St. Anthony I Never Knew


Bartolome Esteban Murillo, St. Anthony of Padua
Spanish, ca, 1660
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes
Like everyone else who has grown up Catholic I have known St. Anthony of Padua all my life – or at least I thought I knew him.

Among the "things" I knew were that:
- He is the ever popular saint who helps you find lost items.
- Scarcely a Catholic church in the U.S. is without a statue, painting or window depicting him.
- Here in New York City he is the patron saint of a well-known Franciscan church in the Soho area of Manhattan, where his feast day of June 13 is the occasion for a novena and a widely attended multi-day street fair with an Italian flavor.
- There is also an impressive shrine, containing some of his relics, in the lower church of St. Francis of Assisi parish near Penn Station in midtown.
- His name is consistently popular for both boys (Anthony, Antony, Antoine, Antonio, Anton and, of course, Tony) and for girls (Antonia, Antonetta, Antoinette, Toni). Since I doubt that very many people are familiar with the earlier St. Anthony Abbot of Egypt (3rd – 4th century AD), all these Anthonys and Antonias are likely to be named after the Paduan.

Luca Giordano, Saint Anthony of Padua
Italian, 1675
Paris, Musee du Louvre
I now know, however, that my “knowledge” really didn’t amount to much.

For many years my impression of St. Anthony was of someone a bit bloodless and remote, as in “Oh he’s the guy holding a lily and being embraced by the baby Jesus”. Yawn! But then, in the middle of a class on the use of perspective in Renaissance sculpture, I was shown an image of St. Anthony that made me sit up and wonder if there might be more to this saint than I’d thought.

This was an image by the great Quattrocento sculptor, Donatello, from the monumental altar of St. Anthony in Padua (where else!). The altar has a series of bas reliefs of cast bronze, set into the marble altar structure. The panel that had particularly struck me shows a composition with the background space of a very classical three-arch arcade presented in beautifully laid out perspective. In the front plane crowds of spectator figures, filling the two side arches, strain to see the action in the central arch. To increase the sensation of depth, some figures are shown as if emerging from an internal passage within the arcade.


Donatello, Miracle of the Mule
Italian, 1444-1450
 Padua, Basilica of San Antonio

In the central arch, in front of what appears to be an altar, are four figures rather incongruously brought together. They are:
  • 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.
What was this all about? In unraveling the tale behind the image, I learned a lot about the saint of lost things, and an eye-opening experience it was too. It turned out that Anthony is not the somewhat colorless person I had always subconsciously assumed him to be, but a formidable intellectual and very effective preacher and miracle worker, in addition to apparently being a humble and holy individual.

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
Although the event the image records is probably legendary it has, as most legends do, an undergirding layer of truth. As the story goes, St. Anthony was preaching in a town (variously called Toulouse or Bourges in France or Rimini on the Adriatic coast of Italy) where some people, apparently Cathars, denied that at the Consecration Christ Himself became present in the bread and wine. One of them challenged Anthony to a contest to see whether a dumb animal would sense God’s presence in the Host and choose it over a good feed of hay and oats.

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
Italian, 1537
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.

Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Anthony of Padua
from Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainaut), 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 94v
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.


At Messina he learned that a General Chapter of the Franciscans was then in progress at Assisi and he traveled through Sicily and then Italy in order to attend. At the Chapter he may have met and certainly saw St. Francis of Assisi himself.

After the Chapter he was assigned to a church in Forli in the region of northern Italy known as Emilia-Romagna. There he began his career as a preacher, which soon brought him to the attention of the superiors of the Friars Minor (Franciscans). His superiors appointed him as a traveling preacher to the whole of the region.

St. Francis also appointed him as the very first teacher of theology to his brother Franciscans. His fame and success as a preacher was very great in his lifetime, as was his reputation for holiness. In fact, his preaching was so effective at combating heresy that he was known as the “Hammer of Heretics”. From about 1226 he lived in the north Italian city of Padua and from there also traveled through France teaching and preaching. He died on the outskirts of Padua in 1231 at the age of 36. Within one year he was canonized, the fastest official canonization in history. And in 1946 he was given the title “Doctor of the Church”. 2

Joseph Heintz the Younger, Miracle of the Mule
Swiss, c.1650
Venice, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo
Anthony has, therefore, always been a saint with an unusually great reputation in the Church and it is not surprising that many legends have become associated with him. Some of them were already well known by the end of the 14th century, approximately within 70 years of his death, when they were included among the Fioretti (in English, the Little Flowers of St. Francis).

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
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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.