Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Saint Anthony's Fire

Today I give thanks for: antiviral drugs. But I also spare a thought for this fellow.

Anthony the Abbot, or Anthony the Great, or Anthony of the Fire: a desert-wandering, magical-adventures-having early Christian saint who roughly eight centuries after his death became the patron saint of shingles.

You may know this particular Saint Anthony through the many paintings that Hieronymus Bosch devoted to his eventful life, and in particular to his ‘temptations’, a popular medieval and renaissance theme referring not to temptations in a modern sense but rather to a persistent demonic haunting designed to make the victim despair and lose their faith. It's a story that was treated as recently as in this work by Salvador Dalì.

Whereas in this seventeenth century, quasi-Freudian version by Joos Van Craesbeeck the demons sprung literally out of the saint's head.

But the most famous depictions are definitely those of Bosch one hundred years before that. In the triptych held at the National Museum in Lisbon, for instance, poor Anthony is veritably besieged by the blasted creatures.

And although the painting nowadays is more famous for some of its more colourful details

its interpretation is famously vexed. I'll just note that in the background there's a city on fire.

For however you choose to interpret the painting, fire is an important association, as the saint was sometimes regarded as the one to pray to if you needed protection against the stuff. In one of the earliest, and decidedly Pagan-sounding, legends that involve him, Anthony stumbled into Hell while walking his faithful pet pig, and stole fire from the devils down below. A bit like Prometheus, except a long time after humanity actually discovered fire, seeing as the historical Anthony lived in the third century. Yes, this legend makes little sense. But it may be via that association with fire and burning that some centuries later the order of the Antonian monks – Anthony is considered, among other things, the first monk – took it upon themselves to look after people who suffered of ‘Saint Anthony’s fire’, that is to say of a serious skin disease which may have either been ergotism or the shingles. The name has survived to this day and can refer to either disease in different countries.

The hospital order operated out of a French village that came to be called Saint Antoine, where Anthony’s remains had been transferred from his original burial place in Egypt. However, treating the people afflicted by the disease soon became a profitable business, and a quarrel over how to split the proceeds with the Benedictine monks that controlled the local priory led to the latter decamping to Arles. Later still, these monks started claiming to have stolen Anthony’s bones as they left, while the Antonins continued to jealously guard their own set as a holy relic. So now there were two saints. Except somehow in the meantime another claim had emerged, and a third dead Saint Anthony popped up in Lézat. The small sanctuary is still a pilgrims' destination.

So in France in the late middle ages there were three bodies of Saint Anthony, each of which was said to have the power to cure you of the shingles. And that's how some scholars interpret the central panel of Bosch's most famous triptych: as an allegory of the arduous process of curing the disease.

I say this apropos of nothing except I could use that particular assistance right now.