In Padua, St. Anthony of Portugal, confessor, priest of the Order of Friars Minor, and Doctor of the Church, famed for his life, miracles, and preaching. Pope Gregory IX entered him into the Canon of Saints less than a year after his death. – Roman Martyrology for June 13
This saint was born in Lisbon and baptized Ferdinand. Originally an Augustinian canon, he was inspired by the example of a group of Franciscans martyred in Morocco to join that order in Italy. Under St. Francis, his name was changed to Anthony and, after a failed attempt to seek martyrdom in Morocco, he stayed in Italy to practice his considerable skills as a preacher, particularly against the Catharist heresy, which was gaining followers in the area at that time.1
Those who have visited any number of Catholic churches will be familiar with the representation of St. Anthony of Padua as a young Franciscan holding the Christ Child on one arm, as at right. This tradition is based on a vision of the Christ Child that the saint is said to have had while staying with a nobleman. The man peeked into the room he had provided for Anthony and saw him holding the Child in his arms.2
This account did not enter the iconography until the 16th century, and even then the child is shown placed upon the book that had until then always been Anthony's most common attribute (example). The book references Anthony's standing as the most famous preacher of his time and the Franciscan order's first Lector in Theology.3 The earliest images are like the second picture at right, with a closed book and the tonsure and habit of the Franciscan order.
The habit is sometimes pictured as gray, more often as brown. In the 18th century some Franciscans wore blue to mark their advocacy of the Immaculate Conception; thus St. Anthony wears blue in a nun's badge from 18th-century Mexico. The habit always includes a rope belt with three knots tied into the part that hangs down, referencing the Trinity.
After the child became a common feature, many painters put him on the opened pages of the book, as if he had appeared to Anthony while the saint was meditating on the scriptures (example). In one stained glass window the child appears in a vision while Anthony is kneeling in prayer before a book. In other images he may be reaching for Anthony from the lap of Mary (example) or St. Joseph (example).
The child is variously portrayed as a toddler (example), a boy (example), or even a small-scale man (example).
Because of the legend that he had once preached to the fish, these were sometimes used as his attribute (example).4 He is also often seen with a lily stalk (example), which in one painting is given him by St. Joseph. Another convention denotes St. Anthony's visionary fervor by means of a red heart held up in the right hand (example), sometimes aflame (example).
In former Venetan areas Anthony often figures in group paintings – anachronistically welcoming into Heaven martyrs from ancient times (examples: Zanchi, 17th century, Loth, 18th century) and assisting at the Exaltation of the True Cross (example). His image seems to have functioned as a sort of secondary symbol for the Venetian Republic with its dependencies, appearing in commission booklets used to appoint governors in the 17th century.
Anthony is also shown interceding with Mary and the Christ Child for souls in Purgatory (example). This subject is possibly related to the story, briefly mentioned in his vita, of a nun who feared Purgatory but who through the prayers of Anthony was able to be cleansed in this life, or perhaps to the more numerous and fully detailed accounts of the saint coming from Heaven to counsel women in despair of their salvation.5
Considering the large number of Anthony portraits and statues in Italy and America, there are surprisingly few narrative images. One of the more popular types represents the "Miracle of the Mule": A Catharist said he would believe in the Real Presence only if a dumb animal were to prefer the consecrated host to a bundle of feed. Anthony arranged for a mule to be brought forward and given that choice. Sure enough, the mule went to the host and knelt down in adoration (example).6
Another story sometimes illustrated is the miracle of the severed foot. Misunderstanding the saint, a youth amputated his own foot, which Anthony then re-attached through prayer. The story is illustrated in this painting in Venice and in this predella in Dubrovnik, which also illustrates three other events in the saint's life.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-08-02, 2017-02-11, 2018-12-29, 2021-01-06.