(b. ca. 1450, 's-Hertogenbosch, d. 1516, 's-Hertogenbosch)
Triptych of Temptation of St Anthony (central panel)1505-06
Oil on panel, 131 x 119 cm
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon
The diabolic enterprises represented in the triptych reach a climax in the middle panel. Devils of all species, human and grotesque, arrive from all directions by land, water and air, to converge upon a ruined tomb in the centre. On a platform before the tomb, an elegantly dressed pair have set up a table from which they dispense drink to their companions. Near by, a woman wearing a large headdress and a gown with an extravagantly long train kneels at a parapet to offer a bowl to a figure opposite. Kneeling beside her, almost unnoticed in the midst of this hellish activity, is St Anthony himself; he turns towards the viewer, his right hand raised in blessing. His gesture is echoed by Christ half-hidden in the depths of the tomb, which Anthony has converted into a chapel. The right wall of the sanctuary ends in a decaying tower covered with monochrome scenes. Two of them, the Adoration of the Golden Calf and a group of men making offerings to an enthroned ape, are images of idolatry, while the third, the Israelites returning from Canaan with a bunch of grapes, prefigures Christ carrying the Cross on the outer wings of the triptych.
A burning village illuminates the dusky background, probably a reference to the disease of ergotism or "St Anthony's Fire", whose victims invoked the name of St Anthony for relief. The ancient association of ergotism with the devil-plagued saint may have been influenced by the fact that one phase of the disease is characterized by hallucinations in which the sufferer believes that he is attacked by wild beasts or demons.
The devils who have gathered around St Anthony display a complexity of form unusual even for Bosch. In the group far right, for example, a blasted tree trunk becomes the bonnet, torso and arms of a woman whose body terminates in a scaly lizard tail; she holds a baby and is mounted on a giant rat. Near by, a jug has been transformed into another beast of burden whose wholly unsubstantial rider bears a thistle for a head. In the water below, a man has been absorbed into the interior of a gondola-fish, his hands thrust helplessly through its sides. An armoured demon with a horse's skull for a head plays a lute at lower left; he sits astride a plucked goose who wears shoes and whose neck ends in a sheep's muzzle. All these shifting forms, moreover, display a richness of colour that confers a visual beauty on even the most disgusting shape. A recent, careful cleaning of the triptych, among Bosch's best preserved works, reveals brilliant reds and greens alternating with subtly modulated passages of blue-greys and browns.
This convocation of fiends ostensibly illustrates the second attack on Anthony described in the literary accounts; the miraculous light which dispersed the devils on this occasion can be seen shining through one of the chapel windows. But the devils do not seem about to scatter "like dust in the wind", as one version has it, nor are they physically attacking Anthony. Instead, their torments must be understood in a spiritual sense. Like the monstrous creatures who confront Deguilleville's pilgrim, they are incarnations of the sinful urges with which Anthony wrestled in his desert solitude. In a drawing made around 1500, Albrecht Dürer similarly illustrated the evil thoughts of a group of people at Mass by means of little devils fluttering about their heads. A number of sins symbolized by Bosch's monsters can be identified, chief among which is Lust. Lust is also represented more overtly in the group of buildings at extreme right, where a monk and a prostitute drink together within a tent; there may be a further reference in the dark-skinned devil in the central group: the demon of unchastity, we are told, once appeared to Anthony in the form of a black boy. It should not be surprising that even the most ascetic saints were susceptible to this particular vice: as the "Malleus Maleficarum" informs us, it was through the carnal act that the Devil could most easily assail mankind.
Anthony, however, has overcome all his temptations through the strength of his faith. This faith is expressed in his gesture of benediction, thought to be particularly efficacious against the Devil; and the steady gaze which the hermit directs towards us is one of comforting assurance. While the wings of the Lisbon triptych show Anthony tempted and tormented, the central panel thus shows him triumphant.