Sano di Pietro, Saint Anthony Abbot Tormented by Demons, ca. 1435-40, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. This late Byzantine work by Sienese school artist of Quattrocento period Sano di Pietro depicts one of the torments of Saint Anthony, a Christian Monk from Egypt who is considered the Father of Monks and a saint.
Anthony was born in Coma, Lower Egypt, in ad 251. When Anthony was about 18 years old, upon reading a gospel which advised, “If you wish to be perfect, go and give away all of your worldly possessions to the poor, and then you will be rewarded with treasures in heaven”, and thus, Anthony gave away some of his property to the neighbors while selling the remaining leftovers, donating the funds to the poor, set out to live as a hermit in the Nitrian Desert, on the edge of Western Desert, where he remained for 13 years. According to Saint Anthony’s contemporary, Athanasius of Alexandria, who documented the life of the monk, the devil tempted Anthony with afflictions of laziness, boredom, and fondness of women, which the saint overcame with the power of prayer, however, he decided to relocate into a tomb, closing the door on himself, and relying on the local villagers to bring him food. In this cave, Anthony found himself amongst the demons of the Devil, and the demons had beaten Anthony so hard that they beat him to death. When the monk’s assistants carried him out of the cave, and other hermits had gathered around him to mourn his death, Saint Anthony was revived, and asked to be carried back into the cave in which the demons had beat him. Ones back, Anthony called back upon the demons, and upon their arrival, they took form of wild beasts, ready to tear the Saint into shreds, but suddenly, a bright light appeared which frightened the beasts. Anthony recognized the light as a sign of God, upon which he asked God where was he when the demons were beating him to death, upon which God replied, “I was here but I would see and abide to see thy battle, and because thou hast mainly fought and well maintained thy battle, I shall make thy name to be spread through all the world.” Anthony then stayed in the cave, surviving by making bread that would last him for six months, and by other hermits passing him food, communicating only a few words to them through a small crevice. The saint would not allow anyone to enter the cave, and those who came to him for advice had to stand outside and listen.
Finally, one day, Saint Anthony emerged from the cave, with the help of the villagers, and while they thought that he would be in poor shape and of unstable mind after having spent so much time in solitude, they were shocked to discover that the monk was healthy and rejuvenated. During the Great Persecution, the most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, saint Anthony set out for Alexandria in 311, wishing to be martyred. He would console those who were imprisoned for their Christianity, but when the Governor saw that Anthony was confessing his faith publicly, ordered him to leave the city and never to return. The monk did not obey this order, and upon returning to the city, faced the Governor in hopes to arise anger within him so that the saint could be beaten, however, this plan did not work, and Anthony returned to his old Roman fort, that he resided in prior to the cave, located by the river Nile, called Pispir.
By the time Saint Anthony retrieved into his fort, word of his dedication to God and ascetic way of life has spread far and wide, and more people than ever began to visit him. The monk saw these visits as a nuance that interfered with his prayer, and traveled deeper into the Eastern Desert. Upon traveling for three days the Saint reached a small oasis, however, his disciples soon found him there, and the amount of visitors began to increase ones more.
Although Saint Anthony has never organized or created monasteries, a large community grew around him, which abided by his ascetic lifestyle and continuous manual labor. Although hardly the first hermit, Saint Anthony is at times referred to as the Father of Monks, inspiring similar withdrawn communities throughout Egypt.
Saint Anthony is called upon to protect against infectious diseases, particularly skin diseases. In the past, such illnesses as shingles, ergotism or erysipelas were referred to as Saint Anthony’s Fire. In Catholic and Orthodox churches Saint Anthony’s feast day is celebrated on January 17th.