Saint Anthony Abbot Shunning the Mass of Gold, c. 1435–1440
Fra Angelico, Italian (Florentine), c. 1395–1455
Tempera and gold leaf on panel
Panel: 7 3/4 × 11 1/16 in. (19.7 × 28.1 cm) Frame: 12 3/16 × 13 13/16 × 3 1/8in. (31 × 35.1 × 7.9cm)
The Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Saint Anthony Shunning the Mass of Gold
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Born Guido di Pietro, the Dominican monk Fra Angelico, or “Angelic Brother,” was famous in his own time as one of the leading painters in Florence. The artist was a master of the new Renaissance style that emphasized movement, emotion, and deep space. Fra Angelico operated the largest and most prestigious painting workshop in Florence, creating altarpieces and other works for Dominican churches. His workshop produced more than 50 frescoes for the common and private rooms in the Dominican convent of San Marco, Florence.
The Christian saint and hermit Anthony Abbott (251-356) was born to a wealthy family in Egypt. At the age of 20, after his parents had died, Anthony sold his property and gave the money to the poor. He retreated to the Egyptian desert, where for 20 years he lived a hermit’s life of solitude and prayer. According to legend, Anthony endured numerous temptations and trials of faith orchestrated by Satan, who could not abide his devout conduct.
This small panel shows one of the many temptations Satan visited upon Saint Anthony in an attempt to entice him to renounce his faith. The episode is included in the biography of Saint Anthony written by Saint Athanasius (c. 296–373). Anthony, like other hermits, was subject to vivid hallucinations resulting from his ascetic life in the desert. Here, Satan has placed a large lump of gold in Anthony’s path. The saint literally turns his back on worldly wealth. Ultimately, Saint Anthony banished the temptation with the reminder that it was only an illusion.
Saint Anthony’s destination—a deserted fortress, his spiritual retreat—can be seen in the background at the left of the painting. The road to the fortress is covered with craggy rocks, obstacles Anthony must endure during his metaphorical journey up the mountain.
In this painting, we begin to see the new Renaissance concern with depicting movement, naturalistic emotion, and three-dimensional space. Saint Anthony is shown in mid-motion as he turns and shuns the temptation. His raised right hand signifies alarm. The saint’s body is presented with convincing solidity, and he stands realistically within the landscape setting. While the stylized rocks and out-of-scale buildings recall an earlier style, Fra Angelico nonetheless has created a convincing and rational sense of space. In order to make the landscape recede into the distance, the artist made the far mountains smaller than those in the foreground and painted the horizon in luminous whites and blues. The bright colors and deep perspective are hallmarks of the n ew Renaissance style.
This panel was probably one component of a multipanel altarpiece devoted to Saint Anthony. The companion panels would have illustrated events in the life of the saint, including other scenes of temptations. Saint Anthony is generally regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism. During the Middle Ages, the cult of Saint Anthony was strongly associated with the healing of disease. Disease was a devastating problem before modern medical advancements.
- What is happening in this scene? Using visual clues in the foreground, middle ground, and background, piece together a narrative of this painting.
- Look closely at the person in the center of the painting. What is he wearing? What does his body language tell you?
- Look closely now at the landscape. Where is this scene taking place? How can you tell? Make sure all the components of the landscape are taken into account.
- How does Fra Angelico create a sense of space? Again, compare objects in the foreground, middle ground, and background. How are they different? How can you tell where they sit in space?
- Renaissance painters often used their landscapes to clue the viewer into the most important elements of the painting. Where does the landscape guide your eye? What do you focus on first?
- Tell or read the story of St. Anthony Abbot. Does this story match the narrative of the painting? Does anything surprise you?
- The mass of gold is represented here with gold leaf, very thin sheets of real gold applied to the painting. So is St. Anthony’s halo. If St. Anthony is shunning gold, why would his halo also be made of gold? What are the benefits of turning away material wealth?
- What are temptations in your life or society today? What are the possible benefits of resisting them?
• This painting originally formed part of an altarpiece depicting episodes in the life of Saint Anthony. Choose someone you admire—either real or fictional—and create a series of paintings showing key moments in that person’s life. Students can work singly or in groups.
• Painting, sculpture, and architecture flourished in Florence during the 15th century. Why? Research the city and its enormous contributions to Renaissance art. Who were the leading artists? What were their major achievements?
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