There is no doubt that the principal inspiration behind this lively panel was the work of the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (1453–1516), who was the first to explore the theme of the hermit saints in such vivid pictorial terms. Compositions such as this have been associated in the past with the work of two of Bosch's principal followers, Jan Mandijn (circa 1500–60) and Pieter Huys (1519–84), but an attribution to neither seems very plausible. Huys' earliest work, another Temptation of Saint Anthony of 1547 in the Louvre, is of an altogether more articulate and restrained form of mannerism. Mandijn's only signed work, a Temptation of Saint Anthony in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem is perhaps closer in concept, but much freer in execution and style.
The picture formed part of the illustrious Barberini collections, in whose various inventories it is recorded from as early as 1623 and through to 1694 (see provenance and inventory descriptions below). The verso of the panel retains the inventory number "616" which corresponds with Maffeo Barberini's posthumous 1686 inventory. That 1686 inventory, along with an earlier Maffeo Barberini inventory from 1672, and a later 1692-1705 inventory of Cardinal Carlo Barberini's collection all list the panel as by Pieter Bruegel the Elder and with palmi dimensions that match the present panel. Such an attribution was clearly misunderstood at the time, but does illuminate the pan-European desire for and proliferation of Northern painting of this type in the seventeenth century.
Barberini inventory descriptions1:
Maffeo Barberini 1623, #33 "Le visione, e tentazioni di S. Antonio in tavola con le cornice di noce"
Don Taddeo Barberini 1648-49, #487 "un cuadro in tavola con la tentazione di s.Antonio alto palmi doi e mezzo et largo 3 con cornice"
Cardinal Francesco Barberini 1649, #665, "un cuadro in cornice nera parte dorata figure in tavola S. Antonio con diversi diaboliche long p.mi tre e alto doi e mezzo in circa"
Maffeo Barberini 1655, #8, "un cuador in tavola con S. Antonio con diversi tentazioni diversi mostri, cornice di Noce largo palmi tre, et alto due e mezzo"
Maffeo Bartberini 1672, #4 , "un cuadro con un S. Antonio con diversi Mostre in tavola alto e largo p.mi 2 ½ in circa con cornice di noce mano di Brugolo Vecchio"
Maffeo Barberini 1686, Folio 209 gauche #616 "un cuadro in tavola piu longo che largo p.i 2 ¼ alto2. in circa Le visione di S. Antonio Abaate con cornice di noche liscia, mano di Brugolo Vecchio"
Cardinal Carlo Barberini 1692-1704, # 358, "un sogno di S. Antonio con varie fantasme in tavola al: p.mi 3 ½ l: 4 cornice nera e oro dal Brugolo il vecchio"
Prince Urbano Barberini 1694, #31, "un cuadro in tavola longo p.mi 2 ½ inc a largo 2in c. rapresentanti S. Antoni che riceve le tentazioni diaboliche"
1. Lavin 1975, op. cit, passim.
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