The St Anthony Cycle


This sequence of six paintings - each 8ft x 10.5ft - depicting scenes from the life of Saint Anthony of Egypt was commissioned in 2001 for a stately home in North Yorkshire and the works were completed in 2002.

The page shows work in progress on the cycle in Ghislaine's studio, some of the panels in situ, details of some of the panels and the full sequence with documentation.

The source for the story of the Saint's life is the biography by Saint Athanasius and Voraigne's The Golden Legend.

Work in progress on the St Anthony cycle in Ghislaine Howard's studio
Panels in situ - panels 1 and 2 (left) and panels 2 and 3 (right)

Overview of the installation of the St Anthony series

Detail of  panel 1 - Departure Detail of panel 3 - The Struggle with Demons
  Details of panel 6 - The Death of St Anthony

The St Anthony Cycle

1 Departure

Shortly after the death of his parents, the young St Anthony hears the passage from the gospel "If thou wilt be perfect go sell all that thou hast and come follow me and thou shalt have treasure in Heaven."

He immediately feels compelled to imitate the lives of the apostles and in order to do so he distributes his inherited property to the townspeople. Shortly after he hears the passage "Be not solicitous for the morrow," and so he then gives away his remaining possessions to the poor and places his young sister with known and trusted virgins, giving her to the nuns to be brought up and leaves forthwith to practise a life of asceticism.

The panel represents the moment that St Anthony bids farewell to his sister.

2 St Anthony Seeks Wisdom

From Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend, one of the most popular icongraphical handbooks.

He recounts how Saint Anthony decided to seek out St Paul of Thebes, the first Christian hermit, and learn from him. He begins by questioning a centaur, helped by a satyr who sends him to the mountains. St Paul’s dwelling (a rather well-appointed cave) is often seen through a cleft in the rocks. The holy man was kept fed by a raven or a crow that would bring him nutrition in the shape of freshly baked bread. On St Anthony’s arrival, the bird knowingly doubled the quantity for the unexpected guest. Shortly after seeing the hermit and taking his leave he sees the soul of the pious man raised up to heaven. He returns to the cave and sees the body of his mentor about to be interred by two lions.

The panel depicts the moment in which the young and old man meet each other for the first time.The centaur can be seen departing into the woodland.

3 The Struggle with Demons

From St Athanasius, page 28.

And here again the Lord was not forgetful of St Anthony’s struggle and came to help him. For he looked up and saw, as it were, the roof opening and a beam of light spreading down upon him. The demons suddenly disappeared as did the pain in his body.

The panel represents St Anthony alone, illuminated by a single beam of light at the moment of his release from his tormentors. The devils and demons disappear into the darkness.

4 St Anthony’s Ministry

St Anthony Preaching on Emerging from the Broken Door of the Deserted Fort, Broken Down by his Followers.

From St Athanasius, page 32.

His friends, hearing fearful noises, break down the door of the ancient fortress in which the saint has made his home. He emerges calmly and without surprise. On seeing the gathered multitude, he begins to preach to them.

The panel represents the moment when St Anthony appears through the broken doorway helped by his friends.

5 A Miracle

From St Athanasius, page 65.

Whilst visiting the brethren on the Nile with some fellow monks, travelling with a camel laden with bread and water, the water gave out and they were in intense danger, for water was nowhere to be found. Presently they were too weak even to walk; they lay down on the ground in despair.
St Anthony, now an aged man, was overcome with grief; he sighed deeply and walked a little way away. He knelt and prayed and at once the Lord made a spring gush forth and so all drank and were refreshed.

The panel shows St Anthony in the foreground turning to hand a water bowl to a younger man. Their hands link around the bowl and a camel turns his head towards them.

6 Death

From St Athanasius, page 96.

Surrounded by 'his children' after having given away his clothes, which were then treated as holy relics of the saint, he tranquilly and joyfully takes leave of his earthly existence. 

The  panel shows the recumbent saint supported by a friend, whilst a woman in red takes his hand and kisses it - she may be understood to be his sister and her gesture signifies reconciliation as well as farewell. In the background another woman (based on myself) looks around to see a black stork (the patron's emblem) taking flight. The summer house against which the scene is set is in the grounds of the patron's house and the closed arch echoes the open arch in the first panel. A glimpse of garden may be seen beyond.

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