The Venerable St. Anthony the Great (ca. 251 – 356) was a Christian hermit who dedicated his life to ascetic exploits in the desert. Saint Anthony is believed to be the founder of a hermitage inhabited by several monks living under the guidance of a single spiritual leader.
The major source of information about St. Anthony’s life is his hagiography compiled by the Bishop of Alexandria Athanasius the Great in ca. 357 AD. He is also mentioned in the works of Christian church historians Socrates, Sozomen and Blessed Jerome. Apart from these sources, there are works ascribed to St. Anthony himself.
According to his Life, Anthony was descended from Egypt. The parents raised the boy in Christian faith. Since childhood Anthony attended church and avoided communication with his peers. When he was about 18, his parents died, leaving him in the care of his teen sister. Thinking about how to live further, Anthony went to the church and heard words from the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew, 19: 21). Anthony took these words as orders from the Lord. He gave away his lands to the neighbors and sold his family estate. The money he raised from the sale he donated to the poor, leaving a small sum for his sister. Next day, while in the church, he heard a voice telling him: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow”, (Matthew, 6: 34). He placed his sister with a nun monastery, gave away the remaining money to the poor and started an ascetic life.
The Venerable Anthony lived in constant prayers, resisting temptations and pacifying the flesh – he would eat bread and salt once a day after the sunset and often slept on the ground, covering himself with a bast mat. After a while the saint secluded himself in a sepulcher, not far away from his native village, where he had to resist demonic temptations. Having decided to dedicate himself to more piety, Anthony secluded himself in a desert. He crossed the river Nile and settled in a fort where he spent twenty years in prayer stocking up on bread supplies twice a year.
The Venerable Anthony went out to meet people after his followers broke the fort gates. His example convinced many people to follow him. Soon thereafter other monks settled around Anthony who became for them a teacher and spiritual leader.
In the early 6th century, in the times of persecutions of Christians, St. Anthony headed for Alexandria wishing to suffer for the Christian faith but the Lord saved him. When the persecutions were over, St. Anthony and two of his disciples settled in a mountainous area, in the so-called Eastern desert, where the saint lived yet another forty years, coming out only to give instructions to his spiritual disciples. The Venerable Anthony asked his disciples to bury his body in a secret grave so that it wouldn’t become a place of worship.
In Byzantine and Russian art St. Anthony the Great is depicted as an old man with a split beard wearing clerical vestments and a baptismal cap. The earliest image of the saint survived on a 4th – 6th century terracotta ampoule from the collection of London’s British Museum. The earliest depiction of Anthony the Great survived in the wall paintings of the Church of the Savior on the Neredistsa in Novgorod (1198–1199)
St. Anthony the Great is commemorated on January 30 (April 17, O.S.).
Zhanna G. Belik,
Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.
Olga E. Savchenko,
research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.
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