Pieter Huys (Antwerp, 1519-1584) The Temptation of St. Anthony Oil on panel 41.8 x 57.8 cm Provenance: private collection
Together with the painters Herri met de Bles and Jan Wellens de Cock, Pieter Huys is regarded as a member of the Antwerp group of painters who were epigones of Hieronymus Bosch. These artists all followed the model that the master established and thus founded a type of northern mannerism. During the 16th century, Pieter Huys took on the task of responding to the high demand for works in the style of Hieronymus Bosch. Although he appropriated his vocabulary, he nevertheless developed his own style.
The Temptation of St. Anthony was a frequent subject in northern art during the Renaissance. The theme explores the test of faith, portraying the choice between vice and virtue offered to each human being. Living as a hermit in the desert, St. Anthony is assailed by diabolical temptations, harassed by monsters and tempted by naked women. This confrontation between good and evil features in one of Bosch's greatest masterpieces, The Temptation of St. Anthony. In the three painted panels, the saint is shown braving the various wiles of the devil in a hellish landscape populated by terrifying demons.
However, to better understand the subject, it is necessary to place the painting in its historical context. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the figure of St. Anthony enjoyed a special relationship with ignis sacer, or St. Anthony's Fire (recognised today by the majority of specialists as ergotism, a poisoning that occurred due to a fungus that infected rye). This epidemic was widespread at the time and caused terrifying symptoms in patients such as convulsions, hallucinations, extreme burning sensations and gangrene which often led to the amputation of limbs. The Order of St. Anthony became famous for its treatment of ergotism and enjoyed such a reputation that the disease became known as "St. Anthony's Fire". The suffering of the victims of ignis sacer was often compared to the fire of temptation that St. Anthony endured at the hands of the devil. Moreover, the frightening hallucinations caused by ignis sacer were often thought to be the fruit of the demon. It was therefore not surprising that the saint took on the role of protector of those affected by the disease.
After Bosch, there was an almost conventional depiction of this genre with an unprecedented visual interest. It allowed a great variety of figures and forms to be portrayed, in the shape of monsters conjured by the artist's imagination. Although the creatures aren't natural, they are composed of elements observed from nature. Starting in the Middle Ages, monsters served to reveal a moral or physical truth, as well as to frighten people and lead them onto the right path. The figure of the woman isn't a monster as such but can sometimes be a representation of evil according to the Christian view.
There are different variants and interpretations of this subject by Pieter Huys. We know of seven versions today that are similar to the one presented here. St. Anthony is placed on the left and seems to be fleeing the infernal landscape behind him. On the right, an amorous couple is completely unaware of what is going on behind them, although this is clearly a reference to one of the temptations. The scene's vanishing point is the giant head from which demons are escaping. Many elements are actually taken directly from the repertoires of Bosch and Brueghel. The giant head comes from an engraving by Pieter Brueghel while the boat on which a feast is taking place is inspired by Bosch's Ship of Fools (Paris, Louvre Museum). The blaze in the background on the right of the painting may be a reminder of the terrible burning sensation caused by St. Anthony's Fire. The same is true of the monsters that haunt the composition and which seem to be the product of hallucinations.
A striking composition with multiple symbols, this painting is a warning against temptation whilst plunging the viewer into a dreamlike world of poisonous charms. With a captivating richness of undertones and quality of execution, the painter creates a dramatic tension by placing the saint in the foreground of the painting, a mise en abyme of the viewer discovering the nightmarish landscape opening up before them. The worthy heir of Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Huys combines talent and spiritual depth to provide a personal interpretation of The Temptation of St. Anthony. Freed from the constraints of reality, the artist employs a dazzling range of colours. The continued freshness of his palette and colours is certainly a guarantee of this panel's high quality.