Today is the celebration of St Anthony or Anthony the Great, (251 – 356), a Coptic monk from Egypt, distinguished from other saints named Anthony such as Anthony of Padua, by various epithets of his own: Anthony of Egypt, Anthony the Abbot, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Anchorite, Anthony the Hermit, and Anthony of Thebes. For his importance among the Desert Fathers and to all later Christian monasticism, he is also known as the Father of All Monks.
The biography (Vita) of Anthony’s life by Athanasius of Alexandria helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism, particularly in Western Europe via its Latin translations. He is often erroneously considered the first Christian monk, but as his biography and other sources make clear, there were many ascetics before him. Anthony was, however, among the first known to go into the wilderness (about 270), which seems to have contributed to his renown, and he was apparently the first ascetic to develop a monastic community. Accounts of Anthony enduring supernatural temptation during his sojourn in the Eastern Desert of Egypt inspired the often-repeated subject of the temptation of St. Anthony in Western art and literature. Anthony is appealed to against infectious diseases, particularly skin diseases. In the past, many such afflictions, including ergotism, erysipelas, and shingles, were referred to as St. Anthony’s fire.
Anthony was born in Coma in Lower Egypt to wealthy landowner parents. When he was about 20 years old, his parents died and left him with the care of his unmarried sister. Shortly thereafter, he decided to follow the gospel exhortation in Matthew 19: 21, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven.” Anthony gave away some of his family’s lands to his neighbors, sold the remaining property, and donated the funds to the poor. He then left to live an ascetic life.
For the next 15 years, Anthony remained in the area, spending the first years as the disciple of another local hermit. There are various legends that he worked as a swineherd during this period. At the time there were already ascetic hermits (the Therapeutae), and loosely organized cenobitic communities were described by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria in the 1st century as long established in the harsh environment of Lake Mareotis and in other less accessible regions. Philo wrote that “this class of persons may be met with in many places, for both Greece and barbarian countries want to enjoy whatever is perfectly good.” Christian ascetics such as Thecla had likewise retreated to isolated locations at the outskirts of cities. Anthony is notable for having decided to surpass this tradition and headed out into the desert proper. He left for the alkaline Nitrian Desert (later the location of the noted monasteries of Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis) on the edge of the Western Desert about 95 km (59 mi) west of Alexandria. He remained there for 13 years.
Anthony maintained a very strict ascetic diet. He ate mostly bread, salt and water and never meat or wine. He ate at most only once a day and sometimes fasted through two or four days. According to Athanasius, the devil fought Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women, which he overcame by the power of prayer, providing a theme for Christian art. After that, he moved to one of the tombs near his native village. There it was that his Vita records those strange conflicts with demons in the shape of wild beasts, who inflicted blows upon him, and sometimes left him nearly dead.
After 15 years of this life, at the age of 35, Anthony determined to withdraw from human habitation completely and retire in absolute solitude. He went into the desert to a mountain by the Nile called Pispir (now Der-el-Memun), opposite Arsinoë. There he lived strictly enclosed in an old abandoned Roman fort for about 20 years. Food was thrown to him over the wall. He was at times visited by pilgrims, whom he refused to see; but gradually a number of would-be disciples established themselves in caves and in huts around the mountain. Thus a colony of ascetics was formed, who begged Anthony to come forth and be their guide in the spiritual life. Eventually, he yielded to their pleas and, about the year 305, emerged from his retreat. To the surprise of all, he appeared to be not emaciated, but healthy in mind and body.
For five or six years he devoted himself to the instruction and organization of the great body of monks that had grown up around him; but then he once again withdrew into the inner desert that lay between the Nile and the Red Sea, near the shore of which he fixed his abode on a mountain where the monastery that bears his name, Der Mar Antonios is still active. He spent the last 45 years of his life here, in seclusion, not so strict as Pispir, for he freely saw those who came to visit him, and he used to cross the desert to Pispir with considerable frequency. Amid the Diocletian Persecutions, around 311 Anthony went to Alexandria and was conspicuous visiting those who were imprisoned.
Anthony was not the first Christian ascetic or hermit, but he may properly be called the “Father of Monasticism” in Christianity, since he organized his disciples into a community and later, following the spread of Athanasius’ hagiography, was the inspiration for similar communities throughout Egypt and, elsewhere. Macarius the Great was a disciple of Anthony. Visitors traveled great distances to see the celebrated holy man. Anthony is said to have spoken to those of a spiritual disposition, leaving the task of addressing the more worldly visitors to Macarius. Macarius later founded a monastic community in the Scetic desert.
In 338, he left the desert temporarily to visit Alexandria to help refute the teachings of Arius. When Anthony sensed his death approaching, he commanded his disciples to give his staff to Macarius of Egypt, and to give one sheepskin cloak to Athanasius of Alexandria and the other sheepskin cloak to Serapion of Thmuis, his disciple. Anthony was interred, according to his instructions, in a grave next to his cell.
Accounts of Anthony enduring supernatural temptation during his sojourn in the Eastern Desert of Egypt inspired the often-repeated subject of the temptation of St. Anthony in Western art and literature. Anthony is said to have faced a series of supernatural temptations during his pilgrimage to the desert. The first to report on the temptation was his contemporary Athanasius of Alexandria. It is possible these events, like the paintings, are full of rich metaphor or in the case of the animals of the desert, perhaps a vision or dream. Emphasis on these stories, however, did not really begin until the Middle Ages when the psychology of the individual became of greater interest.
Some of the stories included in Anthony’s biography are perpetuated now mostly in paintings, where they give an opportunity for artists to depict their more lurid or bizarre interpretations. Many artists, including Martin Schongauer, Hieronymus Bosch, Dorothea Tanning, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington and Salvador Dalí, have depicted these incidents from the life of Anthony; in prose, the tale was retold and embellished by Gustave Flaubert in The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Each year on January 16th, the eve of the festival of Saint Anthony, the town of San Bartolomé de Pinares, located in the province of Ávila, Castile and León, in Spain, celebrates the traditional Luminarias festival. The festival has purportedly been held for five centuries, and appears to trace back to some kind of
ritual purification to preserve the health of the horses in the village. Bonfires are lit in the central streets, and horses jump through the flames, with the smoke intended to protect the animals from disease.
Anthony’s diet consisted mostly of bread and water, so why not celebrate his day with the classic Egyptian bread, aish beledi?