Guide to Bosch’s Triptych “Temptation of St. Anthony”

Bosch alchemists

A tree man with a scaly tail. A monster on skates with a funnel instead of a hat. Flying fish. A plucked goose with a sheep’s head in shoes. Many, many different evil spirits. Creepy. Really curious.

Of course, this is about a painting by Bosch. About “The Temptation of St. Anthony”. As always, there are a lot of details on the canvas. As usual, their symbolism is extremely difficult for a modern person to understand.

To do this, you need to have a good understanding of the time when the artist lived. And the time was dark by our standards. The witch hunt was in full swing. Alchemists were seriously looking for the Philosopher’s Stone and conjured over the elixir of youth. Terrible diseases such as ergotism and plague were rampant. People were scared. People were waiting for the end of the world.

It is in this setting that Bosch painted “The Temptation of St. Anthony”. Let’s try to figure it out.

Why was the “Temptation of St. Anthony” born?

Hieronymus Bosch. The temptation of St. Anthony.
Hieronymus Bosch. Temptation of St. Anthony. 1500. National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

For Bosch’s contemporaries, the world was steeped in evil. Imagine. Whole villages people fell into hysteria. Half of the female population was burned. After all, they sincerely believed that because of their witchcraft, the hail had destroyed the entire harvest.

Around the devil’s trap. It is very easy to fall into sin. And you will never save your soul. The worldview of that era is reflected in Bosch’s painting.

Therefore, the image of St. Anthony was so popular in those days. He instilled in people the hope that evil can be resisted.

Saint Anthony was born in the 3rd century AD. in Egypt. Having believed in one God, when very young, he decided to leave the worldly vanity. To fight earthly temptations in the silence of the desert.

But his intentions were displeasing to the devil. He was very angry that an ordinary person refused all temptations in order to save his soul. From this moment, the temptation of the saint began. But he steadfastly withstood all the tests, becoming one of the most famous hermits of Christianity.

By the way, Bosch and his contemporaries learned the details of his temptations from the book of the monk Yakov Voroginsky “The Golden Legend”. This book describes the lives of nearly 200 saints including the life of St. Anthony.

Miniature about the temptation of St. Anthony from the book "The Golden Legend".
Miniature about the temptation of St. Anthony from the book “Golden Legend”. Edition 1470, France. Stored at the National Library of London.

Left wing of the triptych. How demons tortured Saint Anthony

First, the devil decided to torture the saint physically. A gang of demons caught him, lifted him high into the sky. There they tormented him, beat him. But as we see in the fragment of the left wing, the saint continued to pray, going deep into himself.

Hieronymus Bosch. The temptation of St. Anthony. Fragment of the left wing of the triptych.
Hieronymus Bosch. Temptation of St. Anthony. Fragment of the left wing of the triptych. 1500. National Museum of Old Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

By the way, Bosch could have taken this image not only from the “Golden Legend”. But also getting acquainted with the engraving of Schongauer. The demons of the two artists, of course, are not very similar. However, it becomes clear that in the time of Bosch it was common to portray such an amount of evil spirits. And in its most terrible form.

Martin Schongauer. The temptation of St. Anthony. Copper engraving.
Martin Schongauer. Temptation of St. Anthony. Copper engraving. 1470. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

When Saint Anthony was already dying from the torment of demons, they threw him down to the ground. We see on the left wing the second scene with the hermit. Two monks and a villager led the tortured saint across a decrepit bridge. He hang unconscious in their arms.

Hieronymus Bosch. The temptation of St. Anthony. Fragment of the left wing of the triptych.
Hieronymus Bosch. Temptation of St. Anthony. Fragment of the left wing of the triptych. 1500. National Museum of Old Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

The central part of the triptych. Saint Anthony and the alchemists

Saint Anthony survived. Then he continued his prayers. The annoyed devil decided to act differently. He sent to him invisible demons to intimidate a saint, demonstrating the superiority of evil on earth.

And here we have the third scene with the hermit. He looks at the viewer with a calm, humble look. Obviously, demons don’t scare him. He controls himself and his fears. They don’t touch him either. Though busy with their devilish deeds.

Hieronymus Bosch. The temptation of St. Anthony. Fragment of the central part of the triptych.
Hieronymus Bosch. Temptation of St. Anthony. Fragment of the central part of the triptych. 1500. National Museum of Old Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

Near the saint, demons in human disguise are engaged in alchemy. The goal of this pseudoscience was to modify matter, or even a living being. Make gold out of iron. Grow a homunculus from a sperm in a test tube. Make an elixir of eternal youth out of water etc.

This, of course, caused outrage among deeply religious people. Who firmly believed that there is nothing to interfere with what is given by the Almighty. Therefore, Bosch, as an orthodox believer, considered alchemy to be a demonic affair.

So, next to the saint, three demons are engaged in alchemy. In the form of white, red and black women. These are most likely the colors of the elements of alchemy. Salt, mercury, earth.

A black woman holds a tray with a homunculus. He also holds the Philosopher’s Stone. At the time of Bosch, it was also called the “philosophical egg”. This is a reagent that, according to the alchemists, should turn metal into gold. Demons demonstrate it to seduce Saint Anthony. After all, many were obsessed with finding him. Even kings.

The red woman holds out the cup with the elixir of eternal life to the demon with a pig’s head. The cripple apparently expects to be given a panacea for his injuries. Alchemists also strove to obtain it in their experiments.

A woman in a pink dress and a hem in the form of a stingray tail is holding out the elixir of eternal youth to the old woman. So that she can rejuvenate.

All these temptations leave the hermit indifferent. Jesus Christ stands in the ruined tower and looks at the saint. He helps him resist temptation.

Right wing of the triptych. Saint Anthony and voluptuousness

Bosch Saint Anthony and Voluptuousness

The devil realized that it would not be possible to intimidate the saint. Gold and the prospect of eternal youth will not tempt him either. Then he decided to act differently.

He turned into a beautiful queen. She came to the saint and amazed him with her piety. But the saint immediately understood who he was dealing with when she tried to seduce him. This scene is depicted on the right wing of the triptych.

A naked woman stands at the tent and covers her bosom with her hand. She looks towards the saint. Perhaps calling him to share a bed with her. But he turned away. He did not succumb to the sin of lust.

Why is The Temptation of St. Anthony a masterpiece?

Of course, the painting is very curious thanks to its incredible characters. But as I already wrote, there were many such paintings and miniatures at that time. So why exactly do we know Bosch the best? Why is he so amazing?

Bosch was a virtuoso in detailing. There are so many of it that it becomes creepy. It seems to cover the whole world. And nothing will hide from his eyes.

Bosch details

Just look at the village burning in the distance. Flashes of flames, a falling spire, a crowd of people fleeing. And all this is just microscopic. But so realistic!

Bosch created an incredible sense of the depth of space. To do this, he brightened the sky at the very horizon. But he made it darker at the very top of the painting. Due to this, it is filled with air. This enhances the impact of the images on the viewer.

Even Bosch’s ugliest creations can be called graceful. They are monstrous, but not disgusting. They do not cause frostbite. Rather curiosity. Each of them is carefully thought out.

It is believed that in the depiction of all kinds of monsters and demons in the painting “The Temptation of St. Anthony” Bosch surpassed himself.

Some monsters have even made their own careers. They are recognizable. Although not always people know which painting of Bosch it came from. Perhaps this one is the most famous.

Bosch monster with a funnel

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

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