Is the presence of St Anthony the Abbot enough to hint at the date of January 17 in the scene? And why Hans Memling turns the saint’s pet pig into a bristly boar?
We know that among the Celts the boar embodied the lowest point of the winter solstice. While the representation of Saint Anthony the Abbot, in the Christian era, symbolically indicated a particular day in January, a detail that could have gone almost unnoticed if we do not find it often involved with dates that could seem more ritualistic than routine. For instance Nicolas Flamel’s legend and Rennes le Chateau affair do share “January 17” as a meticulously stressed important detail of death and resurrection, in Alchemy called Magisterium Magnum.
The painting we are examining is an oil on wood known as “Virgin with Child, St. Anthony the Abbot and a donor”, dated 1472, and now conserved in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. We know that Memling was apprentice in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, nevertheless he seems to be clearly influenced by Jan van Eyck’s paintings, both for pictorial details and for focusing on symbolic aspects. For instance, the way Memling provides a date to this painting, white numerals on the rear wall of the room as in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait, is in fact a feature of Jan Van Eyck.
Not new to paint biblical characters with animals, this time Hans Memling sets a personage with a rather disreputable animal, a swine, in an altarpiece while introducing the donor, that’s to say the person who must not be offended, as presumably the commissioner of the work, kneeling in front of the Virgin and Child and, above all, having the coin purse hanging from his belt. In fact we have no report of Anthony the Abbot being used among other wealthy donors, if not because he was usually identified by the attribute of the pig.
We are not surprised to see the donor pictorially accompanied by his protector. But very hardly the choice of the saint was made to specific arrangements of the donor, in reality very often the saint was just an artistic escamotage planned by the painter, who instead had precise pictorial and symbolic needs under his contract. And, among Flemish Renaissance painters, Hans Memling is surely one of the most symbolic. But here Hans Memling clearly represents a young wild boar, not a piglet or a sow as required by the Church tradition. A boar is an animal that, unlike the pig, belongs to pagan and not Christian iconography and symbology.
To strengthen this impression there is the textile panel acting as tapestry for the throne. Memling has sometimes used this weird floreal decoration, in fact it can be defined as a textile trademark for him, like the “Memling’s rugs”. But while the latter reflect the known iconography and decorations of Middle East rugs, the gold panels on the back of the throne of the Virgin looks more like the Dionysian thyrsus than a known to botany flower. The other known Memling’s altarpieces in which we can see a similar item to decorate the back of a majestic dominion chair (1) are the “Virgin and Child with St. James and St. Dominic” (1488-1490) and the “Donne Triptych” (1470-1478). In the first altarpiece the divine child is represented while opening a book. So we are in the first part of our alchemical works, the mere “opening” of the raw matter, which we call “preliminary works” ( see an Opus Magnum scheme) to achieve our Universal Dissolvent. But the scene probably represented in “Virgin and Child with St Anthony the Abbot and a Donor” might be a successive phase even not planned in our Opus Magnum scheme. A phase which may go above and beyond our laboratory works (2). In the Donne altarpiece the divine child is again opening the book, but the complexity of the symbology here would take us to consider a broader survey on alchemical works.
The thyrsus can only reflect the symbols, or modes of representation, collectively associated with Dionysus, and his cult (3). Which, if we do not want to limit ourselves to give it the meaning of hectic and thoughtless drunken orgies, traditionally reserved for the uneducated, we have instead to read in it the hidden and high significance of resurrection and immortality, also ritualized as Eleusinian Mysteries.
Given that, the only other extravagant detail we can rely on seems to actually be the boar, along with the date the saint who makes it his attribute used to be celebrated. And this will lead us to talk of sky and stars, of which the boar was an ancient Celtic symbol. While the Greek piglet owns, once again, to Dionysus’ and Demeter’s sacrificial scenes.
But let’s get back to the key character of St. Anthony the Abbot, who used to be portrayed by Renaissance painters not for his love for animals, but mainly for his hermit life in the Egyptian desert, the “Temptation of St. Anthony” were in fact a common artistic subject of the time. Among the artists who have represented the saint with the swine attribute, there is Hieronymus Bosch and his “Temptation of St. Anthony”, in which the hermit is portrayed along with a bristly piglet wearing a bell, another important attribute, symbol of death and resurrection. The same does Pisanello, rendering a real boar in front of St. George with dragon. Another typical attribute of St. Anthony is the Tau cross, which marks his historical life, providing a date between the end of the pagan era and the beginning of the Christian. The book, or the act of writing, in this case symbolizes huge knowledge attributed to St. Anthony. In the end, a legend says he has brought the fire to the world, hence many diseases involving herpes will be tied to the Egyptian saint.
Anthony the Abbot (c. 251 – 356?), also known as the Anchorite of Thebes, is often erroneously considered the first monk, but as his biography and other sources make clear, there were many ascetics before him (among them also ascetic pagan hermits called the “Therapeutae”), he was just the first to live in the Egyptian wilderness, the desert proper. The day he felt that the time of his departure had approached, he instructed his disciples to bury his body in an unmarked, secret grave on the mountain-top where he had chosen to live. Some years later his remains were reportedly discovered and transferred to Alexandria, and eventually the relics were brought by crusaders to France. In the Roman Catholic saints calendar St. Anthony the abbot is celebrated on January 17 because, as the legend says, that was the day of his death. But there is no evidence that he had actually died on January 17, so this wouldn’t explain his calendar position. The real fact is that we don’t even know the exact year of his death, not only the day. So let’s try to investigate on the boar and see how far this study can take us.
Margarethe Riemschneider (from Die Religion der Kelten, the religion of the Celts): “…….. when it comes to St. Anthony the Abbot it was noted that the pig was originally a wild boar, in a painting kept at the National Gallery in London, Pisanello depicted the hermit with a wild boar. The boar-god was the symbol of Lug, also represented as god-deer and god of the game.
The boar was an attribute of the Celtic god represented as a young man carrying the animal in his arms. Lug was the one who raises from the dead, assuring the resurrection of man, and, every year, the return of the spring, the “light”: thus guarantor of fertility and new life. He was the son of the Great Celtic Mother whom boars and pigs were consecrated, like the Roman Ceres. The Celts honored him to the point of putting a wild boar statue on the helmet and represent him on their banners. They even smeared a thick chalk slurry on their short hair, those who had it, because it would become rigid and resembled the rind of the animal, as evidenced by the Dying Gaul in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
In many of the Celtic legends there are tales of the hunting of the immortal boar carried out to take over a comb and scissors placed in his ears: allegory of communion, in the form of cosmetics, with the god Lug, symbolized precisely as hair pomaded like bristles. The same Druid priests were called “Big White boars.” Even in the Middle Ages the boar remained in effect a divine animal, the legend had it that all the kings of the Merovingian bloodline had the backbone covered with bristles like the wild boar, and Theophanes reports that they had the nickname of “back-hairy” or “bristly”.
The converted Celts had probably transferred the attributes of Lug to Saint Anthony, whose relics were brought by the crusaders in the town of Arles, in their own lands, France. In later times the boar was refined and replaced with the pig, to eradicate the memory of the ancient pre-Christian religion. They justified the piglet with a legend: the pig was a devil defeated by the hermit and forced to follow him subdued.
Lug, god of death and resurrection, ruled over the underworld in that function; in the process of Christianization, St. Anthony also assumed that role of the guardian of hell, thus he became the one who could save the souls destined to damnation, and also became “master of fire.”
Only following this underground route between medieval Christianity and pagan religion it can be explained the huge and, at first sight, incomprehensible popularity of the Egyptian anchorite in the West and his celebration day when people bring pets for blessing to avert disease and promote fertility. In this ceremony the echo of ancient lustration is clearly perceptible, so the memory of the hermit fades in a fusion of rituals, some Romans, others of Celtic tribes, which are intended to encourage the advent of spring.”
As we are talking of a calendar date, we may suggest that some astronomical code is involved here, or, at least, the sky situation of the day. In very ancient times the constellation of the Great Bear was known as “Boar”. In “Introduzione alla Magia” by the group of Ur, we can find the following passage: “The concept of sacred land, or land of the white boar, polar land, is not to be intended as the extreme northern lands of the planet, but rather the sky”. Is it the northern sky, or the winter sky?