Paintings such as this, in which the spiritual sufferings of the ascetic hermit Saint Anthony could be depicted in the most vivid pictorial terms, were enormously popular in the Southern Netherlands throughout the first half of the 16th century. Their inspiration was undoubtedly the work of the Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch (1453–1516) who was the first to explore the theme of the hermit saints in landscapes filled with symbolic imagery. The saint is here seated beneath a hollow tree, the traditional medieval symbol of evil-doing or alchemy. At its base a rat pours ale into a jug which will then be passed to monks and other figures who sit in the tent at the top of the tree, symbolic of both gluttony and lust. A grylle
or demon tugs at the saint's cloak, pulling him towards two reclining figures, a man and a devil disguised as a woman, who together with the apple and jug floating next to them signify the temptation of lust. Behind them more demons drag a tumbril with another naked sinner towards an Infernal head and 'Hell' mouth beyond. In front of them a spectacled owl, normally a symbol of wisdom, trudges disconsolately with a crossbow slung across his shoulders. In the far distance, upon a river, pigs – themselves unclean and symbolic of greed and lust – are seen manning a ship, undoubtedly a parody of the late medieval depictions of the Ship of Fools and its representation of Human Folly.
This is one of a group of paintings that have been associated in the past with Bosch's two principal followers, Pieter Huys (1519–84) and Jan Mandijn (c.1500–60), to whom this picture was attributed by M.J. Friedländer at the time of the 1952 sale. It is closely related to another panel of the same subject, present whereabouts unknown, in which several elements, such as the reclining lovers, the 'Hell' mouth and the Ship of Pigs all recur, but in which Saint Anthony is shown standing and the tree is absent. Another version of that composition, missing the 'Hell' mouth, was recorded with Delius Giese in New York.1 Unverfehrt dates all the paintings in this group to around, or shortly after, 1560.
1. Unverfehrt, op. cit., 1980, p. 283, no. 132a (b) and 132 (c), the former reproduced fig. 148.