“Afbeeldingen van het Antoniusvuur in het werk van Hiëronymus Bosch” (V.H. Bauer) 1972
[in: R.-H. Marijnissen et al., Hiëronymus Bosch, Arcade, Brussels, 1974 (2) (first edition: 1972), pp. 211-216]
[Also mentioned in Gibson 1983: 105 (E188)]
Bauer focuses on representations of St Anthony’s Fire in the art of Bosch. ‘St Anthony’s Fire’ is actually ergotism: a disease caused by a poisonous plant, leading to severe internal pains and the rotting away of limbs or to epileptic fits. The Antonite Order nursed the victims of this disease.
Judging by his representations of the disease Bosch must have been quite familiar with it. It is very likely that he had contacts with the Antonite Order and the Antonites may even have been his patrons. In the central panel of the Vienna Last Judgment triptych we see a monster with a swollen belly: its cheeks are covered with blisters, its face and feet look blue, the legs have withered, the hands have the colour of parchment. All these things are symptoms of ergotism. The monster is wearing a hood: the patients had to wear such a headgear. Why is this detail part of the punishments in hell? The roasting at a spit alludes to the physical pains caused by ergotism: it causes a feeling of burning inside (St Antony’s Fire).
In the central panel of the Lisbon St Anthony triptych a building is on fire: it displays the architecture of the medieval Antonite hospitals (the tower is crowned by a tau or St Anthony’s cross). The wooden stilt of the crippled blind man with the hurdy-gurdy points out that this person is a victim of St Anthony’s Fire. This iconography is remarkable: usually the victims are protected by St Anthony, but here we are dealing with a demon (see the claw at his foot). The man with the high hat has a crutch with him, his cut-off right foot is displayed on a piece of cloth, to the left we see a fetter. The loss of the right foot may have been caused by St Anthony’s Fire. These are devils who are presenting themselves as the sort of poor fellows normally protected by the saint. The devil is fooling St Anthony. Banned by the Church and deprived of the Holy Sacrament these wandering people became servants of the devil. Bauer also refers to the beggar in the right exterior panel of the Vienna Last Judgment and to some beggars and cripples in drawings by or after Bosch.
Regarding the scene with the pig in the Lisbon central panel: the pig was an attribute of St Anthony. The Antonites had pigs with a little bell that could run around freely, were fed by the people and were then slaughtered so that their meat could be distributed. But Bosch painted an impaled pig that is brought to the saint by monsters: the wheel and the executioner’s hat with pheasant’s feather refer to the gallows-field. Executioner, slaughterman, wheel and gallows are motifs referring to the planet Saturn and its children (see the Planetenkinderbilder). The cripple, the poor peasant, the hermit and the prisoner are children of Saturn (prints often show a prisoner caught in a chains: in the Lisbon central panel the fetter perhaps replaces the chains).
In the Prado St Anthony panel we see medicinal herbs (ergot was also used to help mothers when they were giving birth). Medieval man was powerless when confronted with St Anthony’s Fire and so he invoked the saints, in this case St Anthony. Members of confraternities of St Anthony wore expensive necklaces with a silver St Anthony’s cross (tau) and little bells as a token.
Actually, this contribution is a brief summary (written by Edwin Maria Landau) of Veit Harold Bauer’s dissertation [see Bauer 1973 and Gibson 1983: 50 (D40)].