The Artist and Attribution of the Painting: This painting has historically been attributed to Pieter Huys (active by 1545–died 1584). Like his brother Frans Huys (1522–1562) (MMA 1996.230), Pieter Huys worked as an engraver and print designer, but the scholarly consensus is that he was primarily a painter who had success creating Boschian scenes. The attribution of the MMA painting to Huys, first suggested by Edouard Michel (1935) based on a photograph, was subsequently adopted by the Museum and by other authors, including Leo van Puyvelde (1962 and 1971). Gerd Unverfehrt (1980) placed the MMA painting as a copy in the Mandyn-Huys Group, given that Pieter Huys’s paintings are often confused with the Boschian productions of his contemporary Jan Mandyn (ca. 1500–ca. 1559). Of four extant paintings that bear Huys’s signature, three are Boschian in subject matter but vary considerably in date and painting style (Musée du Louvre, Paris; Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp; and Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid). While the attribution to Pieter Huys is plausible for the MMA painting and for other unsigned versions of the composition, the clearly successful theme indicates the output of a large workshop or of multiple workshops. Until a comprehensive technical study is undertaken of the four signed paintings and of the larger group of related works, any attributions to the artist—as well as any assessments of the order of the versions—must remain preliminary.
The Painting: Saint Anthony, identifiable by the attribute of a pig and by the Tau cross on his shoulder (now abraded), introduces the chaotic scene of his temptation like an orator or an actor on a stage. The landscape, rendered in light green and lavender-gray tones, is populated by objects of daily life, reconfigured into arrangements at once playful and ghoulish. In the foreground, a fox passes by wearing a nun’s habit. In the background, a fish flies through the air, and broken jugs form a city in flames. Saint Anthony is surrounded, but remains untouched. It is unclear, perhaps intentionally, whether the saint’s pointing gesture represents his initial weakness to temptation or his final renunciation.
The nude temptress at center represents the demon disguised as a queen who appears in some accounts of Saint Anthony’s life, although not in the Golden Legend telling. Beside her, an old woman brandishes a spindle and a female creature in an exotic headdress offers a calf’s head on a plate, a traditional carnival dish (Larry Silver, Peasant Scenes and Landscapes: The Rise of Pictorial Genres in the Antwerp Art Market, Philadelphia, 2006, p. 135). The burning city in the background and the disembodied leg, which dangles like an ex-voto from a dead tree in the upper center, may be references to ergotism or Saint Anthony’s Fire, a widespread and deadly disease of the period with symptoms that included hallucinations and gangrene (see The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, "Medicine in the Middle Ages"). Because the sick were treated by local Antonite monks, the epidemic of Saint Anthony’s Fire may help explain the ubiquity of paintings of Saint Anthony—and especially of his disturbing, fiery visions—in Antwerp during this period (Corwin 1976).
The Subject and Function: The composition, which exists in several versions and variations, is indebted to the work of Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450–1516). Boschian paintings and prints of hermit saints and hell landscapes remained extraordinarily popular in Antwerp from Bosch’s death through the beginning of the seventeenth century (see also MMA 26.244). The discrete creature types (skeletal animals, winged amphibians, and the foolish owl) found in the MMA painting have a precedent in paintings by Bosch such as the Lisbon triptych of the same theme (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga). However, the Museum’s work is a pastiche in a Boschian idiom, with motifs transformed to fit a later aesthetic. Bosch’s influence on the MMA painting is likely indirect, through the productions of other sixteenth-century Bosch followers, including Hieronymus Cock’s engravings after Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569) (see especially MMA 28.4). The innovation of placing Saint Anthony, seated, at the edge of the composition does not appear until the middle of the sixteenth century (Corwin 1976).
At least three other known paintings are extremely close to the MMA panel in composition and dimensions (Erasmushouse Museum, Brussels [see Additional Images]; Sotheby’s, New York, June 6, 2013; Collection Paprocki, 1963, Sint-Genesius-Rode/Ex. Collection Schoen, Amsterdam). In turn, these exact repetitions share compositional overlap with a larger group of Boschian paintings of the temptation of Saint Anthony, all made in Antwerp in the middle of the sixteenth century. This broader group includes two paintings, one in Brussels (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium) and one in Madrid (Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial), where the figure of Saint Anthony—but not the figure of the nude woman—is reversed from the orientation in the MMA painting. Selective changes such as this indicate the use of drawn workshop models for individual figures, which painters within a workshop could rearrange and even flip in planning a new painting. During this period, Antwerp workshops began to sell finished panels and canvases made on speculation, and paintings were exported to other regions, especially to Italy and Spain. Workshops adapted their practices to match this new demand. The technical examination of the surface of the MMA painting supports the idea that it was made using time-saving workshop techniques, but by a talented and confident artist.
The large size and relative legibility of this painting make it possible that it could have been intended for a local Antonite hospital and hung in view of the patients to encourage contemplation of sin and salvation. The removal of overpaint during the ongoing cleaning and restoration of the painting has revealed apparently deliberate scratches across the nude woman’s eyes and crotch—evidence, perhaps, of an attack by a pious individual on the worldly allure of the figure. These intentional marks suggest that the painting was taken seriously in its time as a religious work, even as Boschian paintings and prints of the theme were simultaneously marketed for entertainment as well as instruction. As the conservation of the painting continues, new photography and technical material will be updated to the online catalogue entry as they become available.
[Anna-Claire Stinebring 2015]