The Temptation of Saint Anthony - Salvador Dali

The Temptation of Saint Anthony - Salvador Dali

The Temptation of Saint Anthony was painted by Salvador Dali in 1946 and, along with the images typical of Dali the surrealist, carries the grain of the artist's future style that will define all his work in the fifties: the so-called nuclear mysticism.


"The Temptation of St. Anthony" in this sense can be considered the forerunner of subsequent masterpieces, in which Salvador Dali surprisingly managed to combine religious mysticism, academic painting and the achievements of nuclear physics. Today the "The Temptation of St. Anthony" is kept in Brussels, in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts.

The painting (oil on canvas, 90 X 119.5 cm) appeared thanks to the cinema, for which Dali always felt a certain reverence - and with which he repeatedly collaborated. In 1946, the film director Albert Levin, who was filming a movie based on Maupassant's novel "Bel Ami," and needed the image of a tempted saint,  announced a competition for a painting on the theme of the temptation of Saint Anthony.

Dali, who never took part in any competitions in his entire career, made an exception that time - and lost. The jury of the competition, which included such "non-random" people in Dali's fate as Marcel Duchamp or Alfred Barr (director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York), recognized the best painting by Max Ernst, an old "comrade" of Salvador Dali, who was also a member of the Surrealist Circle, and, moreover, Gala's lover at one time.

One way or another, it was due to this cinematic event that one of the most famous works of Salvador Dali was born, and the world once again saw an image that gained incredible popularity over time - the elephants on the longest, articulated spider legs, which today all the souvenir shops around the Theater-Museum of Salvador Dali in Figueres are packed with.

Saint Anthony lived in the 4th century and is considered the father of hermit monasticism. The image of St. Anthony experienced a new wave of popularity in the 20th century - and has always been popular in Art.

Having retired into the wilderness, Saint Anthony was tormented by numerous temptations. “He who is in the desert, in his cell, indulges in silence, is invisible to three temptations: auditory, speech and visual; only one struggle lies ahead of him - the struggle with sensuality,” said Saint Anthony.

It was these "sensual" temptations that were taken by Salvador Dali as the basis of the plot when creating the painting. Saint Anthony is depicted in the lower left corner of the canvas, naked and kneeling on his left leg. Nudity is a symbol of the weakness of a human being tempted by demons, and the skull, located at the right foot of the saint, symbolizes the short-term and futility of earthly existence. 

Anthony, trying to protect spiritual purity with one of his iconographic attributes and, at the same time, the main symbol of faith - the cross, looks infinitely weak and small in comparison with the temptations that overwhelm him.

Temptations, or sins, are presented, on the contrary, in all their power and beauty. In front of this glorious procession, a white horse that kicks up on its hind hooves is depicted - a symbol of power, voluptuousness and vitality, and behind it are elephants on legs as thin as spider legs, each of which carries one or another temptation designed to break the spirit  of Saint Anthony.

Here we can see a naked woman of very seductive forms, erotically lifting her elastic breasts with her hands - the embodiment of lust; the obelisk which serves as a sign of the most terrible of human temptations - power; some buildings in the Venetian Palladian style, crowned with figures symbolizing the thirst for glory ... Temptations are alluring, bright, enormous, and, for all their immateriality - after all, they are generated by the imagination of the saint in a lonely desert - they give Antony the most real torment.

The disproportionately thin, long legs of elephants that are about to lean on is a sign that that if Anthony relaxes even for a moment and succumbs to his own weakness, even in his thoughts  - temptations will immediately fall on him from a transcendental height and crush him to death with their enormous weight. Speaking of death, we, of course, mean spiritual death - the most terrible of deaths.

In terms of imagery and allegoricality, elephants on spider legs are a great find for this plot. Although for the first time, as we know, they appeared somewhat earlier in another famous painting by Dali: "Dream caused by the flight of a bee around the pomegranate a second before awakening." Note: both there and here there is an elephant with an obelisk - a tribute to the famous sculpture by Lorenzo Bernini, as well as to Dali's idol - Sigmund Freud, who once dreamed about this sculpture, which was later described by a psychoanalyst in his book "The Interpretation of Dreams".

It is interesting that Dali's elephants in these works have different meanings, but there is a common point between them: both dream and temptation are the essence of non-material phenomena, associated primarily with the spiritual-mental sphere. In the background, in the clouds, you can, by the way, make out a fragment of the Escorial - the royal palace near Madrid, where almost all the Spanish kings are buried.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony - Dali

The Escorial is a symbol of the Spanish monarchy, and its appearance in the painting clearly indicates that Dali, from the camp of anarchists and spontaneous rebels, is ready to migrate to more conservative circles. The same is evidenced by the religious theme, which Dali is developing for the first time in many years without sarcasm. Less than three years will pass and Dali, leaving the United States, will set foot on Spanish land in exactly this guise - a Catholic and a monarchist. (Read the original text in Russian)

The authors of the article are Sergei Zakharov and his wife, colleague and comrad-in-arms, Tatiana - writers and tour guides. You can learn more about our books and buy them in the "Where and what to read" section. We invite you to our tours of the Dali museums in Catalonia. Revealing secrets, debunking myths, telling the truth - we promise full and deep immersion in the amazing Universe of Salvador Dali! 

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