Possibly, the Duomo di Mantua, c.1400
Private collection, Mantua
Private collection, Mantua, for more than 50 years
E. Marani, Nuovi documenti mantovani su Jacomello e Pietropaolo dalle Masegne (Accademia Virgiliana di Mantova, 1960)
This superb representation of Saint Anthony has significant similarities with models of the abbot made by Pierpaolo and Jacobello dalle Masegne for the altarpiece of the Basilica di San Francesco in Bologna (1388 – 1393) and for the tomb of the Doge Antonio Venier in the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice who died in 1400. Documented as active in Mantua, Bologna, Milan and Venice between 1383 and 1409, the dalle Masegne brothers established a productive working relationship with the Duke of Mantua between these two major commissions in 1395.
The dimensions, provenance and material (pietra d'istria, rather than marble) of the present sculpture raise the possibility that it is a missing Saint Anthony commissioned by the Duke of Mantua on 28 October 1401 as part of sculptures and reliefs for the facade of the Duomo di Mantua.
The contract for that major commission, signed by Pierpaolo, is, remarkably, preserved, the documents having been transcribed and published in 1960 (see Marani, op. cit). The contract records that a sculpture of Saint Anthony was planned to crown the expansion on the right side of the cathedral. Although the contract does not document the measurements of the sculpture, the dimensions of the present work are consistent and accord with the use and placement planned. Significantly, it was specified in the contract that the object was to be made of stone, a material suited to exposure to the elements. Although the facade of the Duomo was redesigned in the 18th century, the painting La Cacciata dei Bonaccossi by Domenico Morone, made in 1494, assists in an appreciation of how the building would have looked and where the sculpture was to be placed.
Saint Anthony (c. 261 – c. 356), also known as Anthony the Abbot, Saint Anthony of the Desert, Saint Anthony of Egypt and Saint Anthony the Hermit, was born into an upper class Christian family near Heraclea, in Upper Egypt. He sold all his possessions, gave the proceeds to the poor and, aged only 20 years, travelled into the desert to lead a life of prayer and contemplation, living in solitude and resisting the temptations of the Devil to a reputed age of 105 years. He spent 15 years studying the lives of other ascetics and practicing their virtues, and came to live in a tomb in the Egyptian desert where he was tormented, mentally and physically, by demons that took the shapes of people and wild beasts. At age 35 years Saint Anthony retreated further into the desert, living in complete isolation in an abandoned fort for some 20 further years, seeing no one, talking to no one. Disciples flocked to the fort, however, begging him to come out and act as their spiritual advisor and, in 305, he did emerge spending about five years teaching and organising his followers before retreating again for the remaining 45 years of his life, during which time he did receive visitors and occasionally leave his seclusion in order to help persecuted Christians and to seek out Saint Paul the Hermit.
His long and righteous life was an example which attracted other men to the desert and eventually they formed the first Christian monastic community. The Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (298 – 373) spread the saint’s influence and inspired the formation of monastic communities throughout the Christian world. Known as the Father of Monasticism, in 561 Saint Anthony’s relics were transferred to Alexandria and, much later, were claimed by Constantinople. Then, in 980, they were deposited in the Church of La-Motte-Saint-Didier, not far from Vienne, then a Benedictine priory. In 1491 the relics were brought to Arles to the Church of Saint Julian. Today his skull and a leg bone rest in the Church of Saint Trophime in Arles.
In the middle ages, Saint Anthony was the patron of the monastic order the Hospitallers of Saint Anthony founded around 1100 and whose primary vocation was the treatment of diseases of the poor. These monks wore black habits with a blue Tau-cross and in many cities supported their charities by raising pigs. For this reason, the saint is often depicted in the same black habit and with a pig as his attribute. Bells were used to call swine in at the end of the day and to attract alms leading to the adoption of another attribute, a single bell.
The principal symbol of Saint Anthony is the Cross of Tau, named after the Greek letter it resembles and often used as a variant of the Latin or Christian cross. The upper half of the handle can be seen in the present work, the staff having been lost. Also lost, the metal bell which would have been suspended from wire attached to the hole beneath the left hand.
Notwithstanding the loss of the staff, the figure is immediately recognisable as Saint Anthony due to the canonical representation of the old abbot in monastic dress, his long flowing beard, expressive wrinkled features and shaved head framed by a dense crown of closely cropped hair. Absent also from our example is the most commonly depicted attribute, a small pig at the saint’s feet, an allusion not only to the animals raised by the Hospitallers, but also to the healing properties of lard in combatting the effects of shingles, known in Italian as ‘Saint Anthony’s fire’. The saint was and still is invoked by devotees to combat infectious disease, particularly skin disease such as eczema, ergotism, erysipelas, as well as shingles. The absence of the pig in this representation is very likely to have been deliberate in order to concentrate the viewer more intensely on the noble serenity of the pose of the figure.
We are grateful to Professor Dr. Laura Cavazzini, Universita di Trento, for confirming the attribution to Pierpaolo and Jacobello dalle Masegne based on first hand examination of the work.