Saint Anthony Abbot, ca. 1500
Attributed to Niclaus of Haguenau (German, ca. 1445–before 1538)
German; Made in Strasbourg, Upper Rhine Valley
Walnut; H. 44 3/4 in. (113.7 cm)
The Cloisters Collection, 1988 (1988.159)
The figure of Saint Anthony Abbot combines traditional elements of his representation in an innovative way. Traditional are the hermit's full beard, habit and loose cap, crutch of a tau cross (the only remaining part), and the satanic demon under his feet. The antagonists' interaction is unusual: the demon tears at the front and back of the abbot's robes, and, despite his ordeal, the saint is shown in sober triumph, as he rests a foot at the demon's neck and thrusts his crutch into its jaws.
The Antonines were dedicated to the care of the sick, largely through the establishment of hospitals. Since the order had two foundations in Alsace—at Isenheim and Strasbourg—it is possible that this figure belonged to one of them.
Patients with St. Anthony's fire presented with fiery red extremities that eventually became gangrenous and were either amputated or fell off. A type of ergotism, the disease was caused by the ingestion of spoiled rye. Patients arriving at an Antonine shrine were given Saint Vinage, a mixture of balsam and vinegar, and also applications of sage, verbena, and other herbs that were believed to soothe the burning heat of the affected limbs. Those limbs often had to be amputated and there are many records of amputations in Antonine hospitals.