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fervor vs. dispassion: variations on the depiction of saintliness

Below are two renditions of a scene from the life of St. Anthony of the Desert, who once was a popular subject for artists; the first is by Salvador Dalí, and the second is attributed to Michelangelo (apparently painted when he was 12 or 13).

'The Temptation of St. Anthony' by Salvador Dalí (1946)
'The Torment of Saint Anthony' by Michelangelo (ca. 1487)

Stylistic differences aside (Dalí’s surrealism is a departure even from that of Michelangelo’s), the two interpretations might be considered similar except that they approach the notion of spiritual ‘warfare’ so differently.  Consider St. Anthony’s appearance.  In the first painting, he is naked, thrusting a crucifix forward while he genuflects, and, though his face is hidden, the tension in his muscles and the rigidity of his posture suggest effort.  In the second painting, he is clothed (in a monk’s robe), his expression is composed, even serene, and his body is relaxed despite being molested by demons.  In short, while the first painting depicts his resistance as active, or involved, the second painting depicts it as passive, or detached.

Edward Mullany is the author of If I Falter at the Gallows, Figures for an Apocalypse and The Three Sunrises. He is the recipient of a Barthelme Fellowship from the Inprint Foundation. He is also the creator of the comic strips Rachel and Ben and Excerpts From a Boring Man's Diary. He has a twitter and tumblr.

4 thoughts on “fervor vs. dispassion: variations on the depiction of saintliness

  1. Edward,

    Then there is Grunewald. This is a detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1510.

    http://www.createbuilddestroy.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/matthias-grunewald-temptation-of-st-anthony.jpg

    And it’s different again. The saint is fighting, he is overwhelmed. The plagues of the time are depicted in the figure in the bottom left.

    Seeing the full Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France (it orignally was compartmentalized and had doors that would open and retract, different paintings for different times of the liturgical calendar) was a seminal event for me. It was so overwhelming. They have to keep the temperature low in the room. They paintings are now loosened so all can be seen at once.
    John Berger wrote an essay about it called ‘Between Two Colmars’ – somewhat available on the google book result

    Sebald wrote a long poem about this mysterious figure – joining Breugel and Vermeer as some of the old masters about whom very little is known.

  2. I went to see the Michelangelo at the Met and was surprised by the dimensions. Such a tiny thing! And it’s a painting that is actually enhanced when reproduced, especially electronically. Not bad for a tween, though.

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