VOS, Marten de
(b. 1532, Antwerpen, d. 1603, Antwerpen)

The Temptation of St Antony

Oil on panel, 280 x 212 cm
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

This characteristic creation of Flemish mannerist painting was the centre panel of a triptych and originally decorated the St. Antony altar of the cathedral in Antwerp. In the background we can see several episodes from the lives of St. Antony the Hermit and St. Paul, such as their miraculous feeding by the raven, their conversation with an architect concerning the building of a monastery (which is also visible in the centre of a forest), the burial of St. Paul, and the kidnapping of St. Antony by demons.

In the fifteenth century they often used the episode of St: Antony's temptation as the illustration for one of the four human temperaments, and in this they utilized their astrological theory. The pensiveness of the monk who withdrew from human society and dedicated himself to God is similar to the immersion into a state of melancholy. "Thinking about matters which are not to be thought about and understanding things which do not exist", so goes an eleventh-century Arab doctor's definition of melancholy (Constantinus Africanus Opera I, 287, Basel, 1536). At the same time, however, melancholy is a demonic state ("In Saturni parte sunt diabolici"), and this provides direct contact with the temptation scene.

In this context, music appears on Satan's side as an instrument of temptation. The beautiful female figure wearing antlers and carrying a gold-filled box is escorted by fantastic figures. Among them we can see a couple dancing and two musicians dressed in a peculiar manner. Music, however, appears in the same picture in a positive role as well. The ceremony of St. Paul's burial is accompanied by singing and music-making animals who pay him their last respects in this way.

This, however, is not the only example of the twofold interpretation of the symbols in the painting. It is a well-known fact that one of the attributes of St. Antony the Hermit is the swine, as - among others - he was the patron saint of domestic animals. The malady called St. Anthony's fire (herpes zoster) that ravaged Europe from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, was cured with lard and the sick were cared for by Antonites in their own hospitals. In Martin de Vos's painting the swine-headed figure holding a book, who accompanies the Hermit, also plays a positive part. At the same time, however, the demonic female figure is also escorted by a swine, this time symbolizing temptation.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.