(Credited as a founder of monasticism)
Patronage: amputees; basket makers and weavers; brushmakers; butchers; domestic animals; epileptics; gravediggers; hermits; monks; sufferers from ergotism; pestilence, eczema and other skin diseases and rashes
Name meaning: Inestimable
Also known as: Anthony, Anthony or Antony of Egypt, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Abbott
Anthony was born in 251 to Christian parents in a little village (reported as Coma or Koman) south of Memphis in Upper Egypt. Perhaps fearing the persecutions ordered by Emperor Decius in 250, his parents kept him at home, unread and ignorant of any language except his own. Anthony was about 20 years old when his parents died, leaving him a large estate and the care of his younger sister. About six months after his parents’ deaths Anthony heard the Gospel text, “Go, sell what thou hast, give it to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21), and he resolved to sell and distribute all of the estate except what he and his sister needed to live on.
Not long thereafter, Anthony again heard the Gospel, “Be not solicitous for tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34), and he gave away the rest. He placed his sister in a house of maidens or pious women, the first recorded description of a nunnery, and began a life of solitude about the year 272. Anthony’s first retreat was in the Libyan desert, not far from his home, where he lived in an abandoned tomb. He usually ate only after sunset, his meal consisting of bread with a little salt, and water to drink. Sometimes he would not eat for three or four days. He slept on a rush mat or the bare floor, and spent his days in prayer, reading and manual labor. But the devil’s temptations, particularly visions of sexual seduction, invaded the young man’s solitude.
One time, the devil beat Anthony so severely that he was left for dead, saved only by a friend who had come to bring bread to the tomb. The temptations of Anthony were a popular subject for medieval artists. After emerging triumphant from the temptations, about 285, Anthony crossed the Nile River to live in the abandoned ruins of a mountain fort, where he stayed in almost total isolation for 20 years. He rarely had human contact except for the man who brought bread every six months, but nevertheless attracted the faithful and the curious. Anthony finally came down from the mountain in 305, at age 54, to respond to the entreaties of his followers, founding the first monastery at Fayum. In the year 311, after the resumption of persecutions under Maximinus, Anthony traveled to Alexandria to comfort Christians awaiting martyrdom.
He made no secret of his presence or intentions, but amazingly was not arrested. Once the persecutions abated, he returned to the desert, where he founded another monastery called Pispir. But Anthony still chose solitude, living in a cell on Mount Kolzim with his disciple Macarius and tending a desert garden. Unable to fully escape the world, eventually Anthony lived with a company of followers, instructing them in monastic life. In 337, Emperor Constantine and his two sons Constantius and Constans wrote Anthony, begging that the holy man remember them in his prayers.
Anthony returned to Alexandria in 355 to combat the Arian heresy, which taught that God the Son is a creature and not at the same level as God the Father. Anthony’s friend and biographer, St. Athanasius, patriarch of the Church at Alexandria, reported that Anthony attracted crowds of both the faithful and pagans alike. St. Jerome wrote that while Anthony visited Alexandria, he met the famous holy man Didymus, the head of the catechetical school and completely blind. Anthony reportedly told Didymus that he “should not regret his loss of eyes, which were common even to insects, but to rejoice in the treasure of the inner light which the apostles enjoyed, by which we see God and kindle the fire of His love in our souls.” Shortly before his death, Anthony visited a community of hisn followers, but hurried back to his refuge at Mount Kolzim.
Upon becoming ill, he directed his disciples to bury him secretly at Kolzim next to his followers Macarius and Amathas, and send his cloak to Athanasius. Anthony then lay down, assured his disciples that his body would rise incorruptible in the resurrection, and stopped breathing. The year was 356, and Anthony was 105 years old and apparently in good health until the end. In 561, his remains supposedly were discovered and moved first to Alexandria, then to Constantinople, then finally to Vienne, France, during the Crusades. The Order of Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony, founded in 1096, tended the sufferers of “St. Anthony’s Fire” or ergota horrible medieval disease with painful skin eruptions that blackened and turned gangrenous, often requiring amputation, caused by a fungus in rye bread flour. Nervous spasms and convulsions accompanied the eruptions.
The Brothers, ignorant of the fungus, treated the afflicted with an herbal balm and prayers to St. Anthony, believed to have miraculous healing powers and who, with Christ, had suffered terrible torments. The most famous depiction of this role is by the 16th-century German artist Matthias Grunewald in the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, in which Anthony, surrounded by the plants used in the balm, is tormented by demons trying to destroy his faith.