Since the 10th century Anthony the Great has been a popular subject in western religious painting, and the Christian saint is often depicted enduring various spiritual and mental torments during his hermetic life in the Egyptian desert. He’s usually shown being pursued by a swath of demons and other evil manifestations, and artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí had their rounds lavishing him with all sorts of surreal nastiness. Some saints are gluttons for punishment, and Anthony is no exception, I guess. I assume the aforementioned artists used the subject as an invitation to let their imaginations run wild on canvas, tossing in any weird creature or nightmarish sight which came to mind. By comparison, Domenico Morelli’s Temptation of St Anthony is merciful, shelving the traditional devils and sending some perky nymphs his way. Just look at Anthony’s expression. He’s obviously thrilled.
What I enjoy most about this painting is the rendering of the redhead creeping out from what appears to be a blanket or rug, her breast exposed while her eyes are obscured by the saint’s robe, as if she were blindfolded while engaged in something kinky. She seems so lively and playful, and I love that mischievous grin, which stands in sharp contrast to Anthony’s traumatic expression. With this in mind, Morelli’s piece could hardly be deemed an argument in favor of the saintly life; he depicts the struggle--that’s for certain--yet the opposing side seems much more alluring. I’m not sure what to make of the three faces above the fire, but they nonetheless seem to be enjoying this spectacle. A particularly interesting touch is the crude cross carved into the wall of the cave, located over the head of our devout friend, as if it were keeping him anchored in reality, aiding his resistance of these sultry visions. As odd as this might sound, in this painting I find myself identifying with the merriment of the ladies rather than the stubbornness of our saint. To each their own.