Model of Monastic Life: Fresco of Saint Antony the Hermit by Theophanes of Crete, Lavra, Katholikon
This fresco at the catholicon of the Lavra monastery is a particularly important wall-painting of Saint Antony. The founding father of Egyptian monasticism is depicted in his old age with a long white beard and wears a monastic cowl or hood and a small pectoral cross. He holds a long scroll inscribed in Greek with a quotation from Antony found in the Gerontikon or Book of the Elders (Sayings of the Desert Fathers): “‘I have seen all the snares of the devil set on the earth.’ [And I said], ‘Who can pass through these?’ I said with a sigh; and I heard a voice that said, ‘Humble-mindedness.’” (‘EΙΔΟΝ ΕΓΩ ΤΑΣ ΠΑΓΙΔΑΣ ΤΟΥ ΔΙΑΒΟΛΟΥ ΥΠΛΩΜΕΝΑΣ ΕΝ ΤΗ ΓΗ…).1
The fresco was painted by the Cretan artist Theophanes Bathas, known commonly as Theophanes of Crete (?-1559). Theophanes had trained in the Cretan style of painting and was, perhaps, the most prominent artist to introduce this style to Mount Athos.2 He became a monk at the Lavra monastery, but he continued to paint at other locations as well, including at Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos and at St. Nicholas Anapasfsos at Meteora.
Today, the works of Theophanes are some of the oldest remaining examples of Cretan wall-paintings on Mount Athos and the rest of Greece. His technique is somewhat more naturalistic than those of previous painters on Mount Athos due to his training in Venetian Crete, but even as a post-Byzantine painter Theophanes is most notably studied for his continuity with Byzantine precedents.
Saint Antony (251-356), depicted here in the fresco, was one of the very first individuals to leave society to seek solitude and spiritual enlightenment in the wilderness. Born in the middle of the third century, he was orphaned as a young adolescent, but he had received a Christian education from his parents. He was inspired by the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “if you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Matthew 19:21] Young Antony did just that; he sold his possessions and went out into the Egyptian desert to devote himself wholly to prayer and asceticism.
Antony remained active as a member and spiritual father in the early Christian Church. His correspondences with Saint Athanasius of Alexandria and other records remain important evidence of his pastoral activities. Saint Antony even left the desert on occasion to address problems within the Church, particularly during the Arian controversy of the early fourth century.
Athanasius of Alexandria later wrote Saint Antony’s biography shortly after his death in 356. In The Life of Saint Antony, Athanasius describes the torments that Saint Antony endured on behalf of his zeal for Christ.3 The devil took on fantastical forms of wild beasts to frighten or distract the saint from his prayer. But Saint Antony’s will proved to be stronger, and he emerged victorious on every occasion. After a while, his struggles and lifestyle attracted many followers. With Saint Antony’s help, these followers founded small communities in the desert for mutual support, and they learned from him the values of ascetic living. Thereafter, those seeking a more intimate relationship with God followed the example of Saint Antony and fled worldly life.4 In time they became known as monks (from the Greek word monos, meaning solitary).
To this day, monks who continue to practice the lifestyle initiated by Saint Antony look up to the saint as a perfect role-model. Furthermore, monks continue to read and study the saint’s life and his works. His images are also placed on walls or depicted on icon panels where they are usually grouped together with other ascetic fathers and monastic teachers.
Athanasius, Select Works and Letters, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, vol. IV, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. Ellershaw, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1924.
Brown, Peter. Body and Society: men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity, New York: Columbia Press, 1988.
Konstantinos, Dimitrios. “Greece, Hearth of Art and Culture after the Fall of Constantinople,” in Post-Byzantium: The Greek Renaissance, ed. Eugenia Chalkia.
Wartley, John. The Book of the Elders: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Systematic Collection. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2012.
1For this text see http://logismoitouaaron.blogspot.com/2009/01/i-saw-snares-of-devil-spread-in-earth.html; translation in Wartley, The Book of the Eldesr: Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Systematic Collection. ch. 15: Humility, no. 3 (Antony 7), 246.
2Konstantinos, “Greece, Hearth of Art and Culture after the Fall of Constantinople,” in Post-Byzantium, 41-45.
3Athanasius, Select Works and Letters, 195-221.
4Peter Brown, “The Desert Fathers: Anthony to John Climacus,” in Body and Society: men, women, and sexual renunciation in early Christianity, (New York: Columbia Press, 1988), 213-40.