The Tau of Saint Anthony Abbot
Saint’Antony Abbot was born in 251 d. C. in Coma, the current Qumans, a small town located in the heart of Egypt. The life of the saint is accurately described and spread in Vita Antonii from about 357, from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria of Egypt. The work, translated into various languages, became popular in the East as well as in the West and made a major contribution to the affirmation of the ideals of monastic life. Son of Christian farmers, orphaned at the age of twenty, with a wealth to administer and a younger sister to look after, he soon felt obliged to follow the evangelical exhortation: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you own and give it to the poor.” Distributed the goods to the most needy people and entrusted the sister to a female community, he started to follow the lonely life that already other anacorets did in deserts around his city, living in prayer, poverty, and chastity. In search of a penitent lifestyle, without distractions, he asked God to be enlightened and, thanks to the encounter with several ascetics, decided to become hermit. The etymology of Antony’s name, from the crude Αντώνης (Antōnīs), Αντώνιος (Antōnios) means just who faces his opponents. And in fact, after a few years of this experience, it started tough tests. In these first years of complete solitude, he was tormented by strong temptations, obscene thoughts, and doubts about the real opportunity of such a lonely life, not followed by the mass of men or ecclesiastics. In addition, the instinct of the flesh and the attachment to the material goods, which he had sought to settle in those years, came back bully and uncontrollable. He therefore asked help to other ascetics, who told him not to be scared, going ahead with confidence, because God was with him. Discovered by his fellow citizens, who, like all Christians of those times, flourished at the anacorets to receive advice, help and consolation, but at the same time disturbed their solitude and recollection, Antony moved further to the Red Sea. In the mountains of the Pispir there was an abandoned fortress, infested with snakes, but with a natural spring: the saint moved in 285 and remained there for 20 years in absolute solitude. Following the example of Jesus, led by the Spirit, retired into the desert “to be tempted by the devil” he devoted himself to an even more rigid life of solitude, seen as the only means of allowing man to purify himself from all the bad tendencies, personified In the biblical figure of the devil. To escape the many curious people who went to the Red Sea fortress, he decided to retire to a more isolated place. He went to the desert of Tebaid, in Upper Egypt, where he started to cultivate a small vegetable garden for his livelihood and some disciples who occasionally came to him. He lived in the Tebaide until the end of his long life. He died at 106 years, on January 17th, 356, and was buried in a secret place. Athanasius reports that Antony had hidden the place of his death to his disciples, but gave them as precious relics; the tunic and the mantle. According to some Antonese historians, first of all Aymar Falco, the body of the saint would remain hidden for about 170 years from his death. His find is circumscribed at 529, at the time of Emperor Justinian. Conducted in Alexandria, he was buried in the church of St. John the Baptist. Occupied Egypt by the Saracens, the body was transferred to Constantinople on June 12th, 670, to protect it from vandalism and looting.
The popularity of the life of the saint, an example of the ideals of monastic life, explains the central place that his image has consistently enjoyed in sacred art. Because of the widespread veneration, we find images of the saint, usually depicted as an old monk with a long white beard, in miniature codes, capitals, stained glass windows, wooden sculptures for altars and chapels, frescoes, boards and blades placed in places of worship. With the advent of the print, his image appeared in many engravings that devotees began to hang in their homes. In the medieval period, Saint Antony’s worship was popular, especially by the order of the Antonian Hospitals, who consecrated it also by iconography: it portrays the saint who has gone on over the years, while inciting shaking a bell, in the company of a pig , an animal from which they obtained the fat to prepare emollients to spread on the sores and give relief to the sick. In some cases, given his ability to cure, in fact, the disease of the notorious “fire of Saint Antony” or herpes zoster, better known by the name of St. Anthony’s fire, the saint is depicted with the fire at his feet. The crushed snake, which we may sometimes find at his feet, represents the perseverance of the saint to cope with the temptations of the devil, which is represented precisely in the typical form of the snake. The pilgrim’s stick, which often ends with a red tau-shaped cross and the mantle with the same sewn symbol that the Antonians carried with absolute determination, complemented his simple but determined iconography. Very rarely are the depictions of the hermit surrounded by sensual women who represent the carnal temptations to which the saint had to face in his life.