Thursday, March 06, 2008

More beads for Saint Anthony

For reasons I haven't yet figured out, certain saints are more often pictured with paternoster beads than others in medieval painting and sculpture. Saint Jerome, for instance, if he's shown in his study will very often have a string of beads hanging somewhere in the background.

Saint Anthony Abbot is another saint often pictured with a paternoster. Probably one of the reasons is to signal his status as a prototype of all holy hermits, along with his friend Saint Paul of Thebes. Another major reason is that tradition says Saint Anthony counted his prayers using a pile of pebbles, throwing one away after each repetition of his prayer, which makes him a forefather of the rosary as well. His beads, however, are generally not shown as a pile of pebbles, but as an ordinary strung paternoster of whatever time period the painter decided was appropriate -- usually the painter's own century.

As I think I've mentioned, the temptation of Saint Anthony by demons is a popular scene, and in most of these scenes he is holding a string of beads, often rather more conspicuous than the small glimpse of beads we see in the Isenheim altarpiece. One of my favorite "Temptations" is this one, a detail from the Penitence of Saint Jerome triptych by Joachim Patinir, painted about 1515-24 and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The Square Halo, a favorite book of mine about saints and their depiction in medieval paintings, notes that these demons appear to be rather quiet and polite as demons go -- tapping gently at the saint's book to get his attention, rather than pulling his hair or tweaking his nose. Enlarging this part of the painting reveals details of the beads and also some rather intriguing details of the book he's reading -- perhaps it's even identifiable, but in any case it has a very fine tooled leather cover.


The beads appear by their color to be wood, which makes sense if the saint is off in the wilderness somewhere. There are probably supposed to be five decades -- set off by marker beads somewhat larger than the others -- but the painter didn't quite count them precisely as there is one "decade" with only eight beads.

A rather more magnificent set of beads is held by Saint Anthony in the forefront of another painting, the Hermit Saints panel (labeled "Heremite Sancti") of the very famous Ghent altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, painted for Saint Bavo Cathedral around 1432. This is a huge painting, with many panels showing saints of various types all surrounding the central picture: there are groups representing virgins, martyrs, apostles, popes and clerics, soldier saints, hermits, pilgrims and so forth.

Ghent altarpiece

The holy hermits are in panel 13 (bottom row, just to the right of the central scene) and Saint Anthony and Saint Paul of Thebes are in the front row, as befits their role as prototypes. You can tell which is which by the fact that Saint Anthony has his staff -- L-shaped rather than T-shaped this time. There is supposed to be a blue Tau-cross on his robe, but I can't see it in this reproduction. Also, as is often the case when these two saints are shown together, Saint Anthony is on the left (heraldic "dexter," the position of honor), indicating he has precedence in rank.


Since the events in the painting are supposed to be taking place in Heaven, or at least in the Book of Revelations, Saint Anthony is not restricted to plain wooden beads, but has a long straight string of about 35 beads that are probably supposed to be rock crystal. It also has fancy pearl-embellished tassels on both ends; clearly in Heaven, wealth is infinite and saints can afford whatever they like!


The beads carried by Saint Paul of Thebes in the same painting are black, on a red string, and are probably supposed to represent jet. I can't think of any particular association between Saint Paul and jet, but these would be valuable beads, although not as valuable as Saint Anthony's. There are 21 beads visible, though the exact number is probably not significant. Of more interest, there seems to be a flat cross of some sort at the bottom of the loop of beads. This area of the painting is quite dark and it's difficult to see details of the cross in a reproduction. It appears to be a cross pattée with the arms narrow at the center and wide at the ends.


I have another couple of Saint Anthonys to show, but I'll save them for another post.

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