While spending the night in an abandoned tomb, St. Anthony was viciously tormented by a gaggle of horrifying demons, only to return the next day, exclaiming: “Here is Anthony. I do not flee your beatings nor pain, nor torture; nothing can separate me from the love of God.” According to St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, they came next “in droves, taking the form of all kinds of monstrous beasts and hideous reptiles,” yet St. Anthony, groaning in pain, “faced the demons, laughing: ‘If you had any power, only one of you would be enough to kill me; but the Lord has taken away your strength…”
For centuries the Temptation of St. Anthony has provided a template for imaginative artists to indulge their propensities for the fantastic and bizarre. In this 16th century rendition by a follower of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, St. Anthony appears first in the foreground, inhabiting the tomb, and again in the background, being carried away by flying demons. What is most notable in this painting, however, is not the religious or supernatural subject matter, but the emphasis given to the landscape.
According to the National Gallery in Washington, “This change of emphasis marks an important advance toward the development of pure landscape painting, in which Pieter Bruegel the Elder was an instrumental figure. Already, that delight in the natural world is apparent here in the shadowy depths of leafy forests, contrasting with open vistas of waterways, villages, and towns bathed in pearly light.”