Description & Technical information

This exquisite terracotta statute of Saint Anthony, also known as Anthony the Abbot, Saint Anthony of the Desert, Saint Anthony of Egypt and Saint Anthony the Hermit, consists of two parts, front and back sections, joined together skilfully before firing. This method was used in order to reduce the weight of the work and to ensure a successful firing. Minor hairline cracks and firing flaws do not detract from the aesthetic integrity of this sublime representation.

Born into an upper class Christian family near Heraclea, in Upper Egypt, Saint Anthony (c. 261 – c. 356) sold all his possessions, gave the proceeds to the poor and, aged only 20 years, travelled into the desert to lead a life of prayer and contemplation, living in solitude and resisting the temptations of the Devil to a reputed age of 105 years. He spent 15 years studying the lives of other ascetics and practicing their virtues, came to live in a tomb in the Egyptian desert where he was tormented, mentally and physically, by demons that took the shapes of people and wild beasts. At age 35 years Saint Anthony retreated further into the desert, living in complete isolation in an abandoned fort for some 20 further years, seeing no one, talking to no one. Disciples flocked to the fort, however, begging him to come out and act as their spiritual advisor and, in 305, he did emerge spending about five years teaching and organising his followers before retreating again for the remaining 45 years of his life, during which time he did receive visitors and occasionally leave his seclusion in order to help persecuted Christians and to seek out Saint Paul the Hermit.

His long and righteous life was an example which attracted other men to the desert and eventually they formed the first Christian monastic community. The Life of Saint Anthony by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (298 – 373) spread the saint’s influence and inspired the formation of monastic communities throughout the Christian world. Known as the Father of Monasticism, in 561 Saint Anthony’s relics were transferred to Alexandria and, much later, were claimed by Constantinople. Then, in 980, they were deposited in the Church of La-Motte-Saint-Didier, not far from Vienne, then a Benedictine priory. In 1491 the relics were brought to Arles to the Church of Saint Julian. Today his skull and a leg bone rest in the Church of Saint Trophime in Arles.

In the middle ages, Saint Anthony was the patron of the monastic order the Hospitallers of Saint Anthony founded around 1100 and whose primary vocation was the treatment of diseases of the poor. These monks wore black habits with a blue Tau-cross and in many cities supported their charities by raising pigs. For this reason, the saint is often depicted in the same black habit and with a pig as his attribute. Bells were used to call swine in at the end of the day and to attract alms leading to the adoption of another attribute, a single bell.

The principal symbol of Saint Anthony is the Cross of Tau, named after the Greek letter it resembles and often used as a variant of the Latin or Christian cross. Only the terracotta handle remains in the present work, the staff, almost certainly made of metal or wood, having been lost. Also lost, the metal bell which would have been suspended from wire attached to the hole beneath the handle.

Notwithstanding the loss of the staff, the figure is immediately recognisable as Saint Anthony due to the canonical representation of the old abbot in monastic dress, his long flowing beard, expressive wrinkled features and shaved head framed by a dense crown of closely cropped hair. Absent also from our example is the most commonly depicted attribute, a small pig at the saint’s feet, an allusion not only to the animals raised by the Hospitallers, but also to the healing properties of lard in combatting the effects of shingles, known in Italian as ‘Saint Anthony’s fire’. The saint was and still is invoked by devotees to combat infectious disease, particularly skin disease such as eczema, ergotism, erysipelas, as well as shingles. The absence of the pig in this representation is very likely to have been deliberate in order to concentrate the viewer more intensely on the noble serenity of the pose of the figure.

Beneath the heavy drape of the cassock and woollen cloak, the stance of the old abbot is both natural and elegant, his left leg planted firmly, his right arm bent and hand resting comfortably on his chest, a placid soothing gesture. The right leg is pushed forward, bent and sideways, the left arm outstretched leaning on the handle of the staff, the composition perfectly balanced to evoke an overall sense of tranquillity and serenity. The artist has captured the concentration of a man venerated for a life time’s devotion to moral thought and, at the same time, his inherent humanity and kind, protective and caring character. It is a moving testament to the life of this object that the surface of the upper right thigh is rubbed, worn over time from the hands of those who knelt at the saint’s feet to pray, as are the right hand and bald head, from those seeking a physical connection as well as a spiritual one.

The stylistic characteristics and high quality of this work allow a firm attribution to one of the most skilled and important Florentine sculptors working in the modern style at the turn of the 16th century – Bartolomeo di Giovanni d’Astore Sinibaldi, more commonly known as Baccio da Montelupo.

Despite the absence of direct documentary evidence, it is likely that Baccio was apprenticed in a Florentine workshop which brought him into direct contact with young artists studying in the famous Garden of San Marco under the aegis of Lorenzo de' Medici (1449 – 1492), ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent’, and that his master was Benedetto da Maiano (1442 – 1497). It is probable that it is from Benedetto that Baccio acquired the technical virtuosity that allowed him to work with equal success in all sculptural media. His master’s influence can be seen in the present work despite it having been sculptured nearly 20 years after the death of Benedetto in 1497.

With the exception of a number of important wooden crucifixes, the comparatively slow pace at which Baccio worked, combined with the impact of the ravages of time, leaves us with a relatively small catalogue of surviving works by the master. Of his surviving terracotta sculptures, the most significant is the lamentation scene produced as a young man in 1494 – 1495 and now only partially preserved in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna. It is technically significant that the three surviving figures of the Bologna group, the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and a third Mary, were shaped and fired using the same method as the present work creating the impression of rounded solid objects which are in fact hollow.

The highlight of Baccio’s career came perhaps with the commission in 1514 from a competition sponsored by the Florence silk merchants’ guild to create a statue in bronze for one of the remaining empty niches on the facade of Orsanmichele in Florence. His masterful bronze Saint John the Evangelist took its place on the exterior beside works by Italian masters of the preceding century such as Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Andrea del Verrocchio, Filippo Brunelleschi and Nanni di Banco.

It is not possible to say with certainty whether our Saint Anthony was made as a model for a larger figure in marble or bronze or whether it was designed and produced as a final terracotta work and end in itself. The fact that it has been preserved in such exceptional condition, as well as the fact that traces of original polychromy can be seen with the naked eye, leads to the conclusion that it was conceived and made to be a final sculpture. It is possible that the work was made for the pieve (parish church) of San Lorenzo in Segromigno, near Lucca, as is suggested by a 1519 payment to the sculptor discovered by Prof. Francesco Caglioti.

This beautiful object is a rare surviving terracotta masterpiece of Italian Renaissance sculpture from one of the most talented craftsman of the age.

We are grateful to Prof. Francesco Caglioti, University of Naples Federico II, for confirming the attribution to Baccio da Montelupo based on first hand examination of the work.

A Report on Thermoluminescence Analysis from Art-Test, Art & Technology, Florence, indicates that sample nos. E1, E2, 12 October 2009 are authentic and compatible with the date attributed to the work.

Date:  1510 – 1515
Period:  1400-1600, 16th Century
Origin:  Italy, Florence
Medium: Terracotta, Traces of original polychrome
Dimensions: 85 x 29.2 x 22.7 cm (33¹/₂ x 11¹/₂ x 8⁷/₈ inches)
Provenance: Private collection, Sienna
Private collection, Florence
Literature: P. Guidi, ‘La ‘Pieta’ di Lammari e la ‘Pieta’ di Segromigno. Note critiche, con documenti inediti’ in Arte Cristiana, Vol. III (1915), pp. 66-78
F. Petrucci, ‘Baccio da Montelupo a Lucca’ in Paragone Arte, Vol. XXXV(1984), no. 417, pp. 3-22
R. Gatteschi, Baccio da Montelupo – Scultore e architetto del Cinquecento (Editoriale Tosca, Firenze, 1993) esp. pp. 94, 116
J. D. Turner, The Sculpture of Baccio da Montelupo, Ph.D. Thesis, Brown University, Providence, 1997
L. A. Waldman, ‘The patronage of a favourite of Leo X: Cardinal Niccolò Pandolfini, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio and the unfinished tomb by Baccio da Montelupo’ in Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Vol. XLVIII (2004), pp. 105-128
F. Caglioti, ‘Nuove terracotte di Benedetto da Maiano’ in Prospettiva, Vol. 126-127 (2007), pp. 15-45
D. Lucidi, ‘Contributi a Baccio da Monteluposcultore in terracotta’ in Nuovi Studi, Vol. 19 (2014), pp. 51-132, esp. pp. 71, 94
F. Caglioti, Novità su Baccio da Montelupo e il cardinale Niccolò Pandolfini
(to be published)
Categories: Sculpture