And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

søndag 27. januar 2013

St. Guthlac and St. Anthony

And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil
- Matthew, 6:13

Yesterday I read a piece on the 7th-century saint Guthlac on one of my favourite blogs, where I was made aware of the illuminated life of the saint found in MS. Harley Roll Y.6. The oldest part of this manuscript is known as the Guthlac Roll, and it is illuminated with 18 small roundels containing scenes from the saints life. The MS. is of South-East English provenance and dates to the last quarter of the 12th century, or possibly the first quarter of the 13th century. The illuminations are beautifully rendered in vibrant lines, and I was struck by one in particular - roundel 6 - which depicts Guthlac fighting his demon tormentors who are armed with knotted whips. Aside from the lively facial expressions of the demons and the pleading gestures of Guthlac, there was one aspect in particular that caught my eye, namely how very similar this scene is to the 15th- and 16th-century portrayals of the temptations of St. Anthony.

Roundel 6 - Guthlac tormented by demons (courtesy of British Library)

Guthlac was a hermit saint born in 674 to the royal dynasty of Mercia, son of Penwalh and Tette. From he was fifteen to he was twenty-four he led a band of warriors, most likely fighting and plundering the Welsh, but also other Anglo-Saxons. After years of robbery, he was converted to Christianity and received the tonsure at the double monastery of Repton, under the aegis of Abbess Ælfthryth. After two years at Repton he moved into the fens of East Anglia in the year 700, where he settled on the island of Crowland and remained there for the last fifteen years of his life. Guthlac's life was recorded c.740 by a monk called Felix, and although this proximity in time lifts Guthlac above the muddy waters of myth, his biography is nonetheless so formulaic that it is hard to separate facts from legend. However, the most interesting aspect of this biography is that among its hagiographic models is the life of St. Anthony (251-356), written by Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373) and known in 7th-century England through the translation into Latin by Evaristus. The hagiography depicts Anthony's struggle against demons, and this feature gained immense popularity in medieval art. Felix included it in his Life of Guthlac, and wrote about demons who would one night be filthy humans speaking British (as opposed to the native English of Guthlac) and another night appear as terrible beasts. This became a trope of hermit hagiography, and seeing as both Guthlac and Anthony were hermit saints, it is very easy to understand why Felix drew on this particular hagiography for his life of Guthlac.

It appears, however, that it was not only Felix's hagiography that drew on existing models associated with Anthony. The iconographic continuity suggested by the similarities of roundel 6 and painters like Matthias Grünewald and Hieronimus Bosch, hints at a trope connected with Anthony - or at least hermit saints - which was cultivated in art throughout the Middle Ages, and this in turn means that the illuminator of the Guthlac Roll most likely drew on an existing repository pertaining to the tribulations of St. Anthony.

 Mid-15th century engraving by Martin Schongauer

Late-15th century painting by Michelangelo, based on Schongauer

Matthias Grünewald, c.1515, picture taken from this website

Niklas Manuel Deutsch, c.1520

As we see, the similarities are striking. However, due to the lack of the evidence - for instance, I know of now such depictions in the late 13th or 14th centuries - I cannot be too adamant when suggesting an iconographic continuity. It may of course be the case that the renaissance arists and the Guthlac illuminator drew from a common source which was revived in the 15th century, but this can not be asserted either way. It should also be noted, that while both Anthony and Guthlac are depicted being assaulted by demons, only Guthlac - at least to my knowledge - is allowed to subdue his adversary in the end.

Roundel 8 - Guthlac chastises a demon (courtesy of British Library)


Farmer, David, Oxford Dictionary of Saints

Mayr-Harting, Henry ‘Guthlac [St Guthlac] (674–715)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

Zuffi, Stefano (ed.), Angels and demons in art

2 kommentarer:

  1. This is a very interesting post! There's a useful article by George Henderson ('The Imagery of St Guthlac of Crowland' in 'England in the Thirteenth-Century', ed. W.M. Ormrod (Woodbridge, 1985)) which talks about the differences between the iconography of the Guthlac Roll and Felix's Vita - for instance, the scourge with which Guthlac drives off the demons, given to him by St Bartholomew, doesn't appear in the early hagiograpy but features prominently in various later depictions of Guthlac, including the seal of the Abbot of Crowland. Do you know whether it's common for hermits to fight off demons with such weapons?

    1. Thank you, and thanks for your reading tip! I first became aware of Guthlac while studying the 14th-century Lytlyngton Missal of Westminster, where I noticed that he shared several liturgical items with Edward the Confessor, and I would really like to read more about him. Thanks again!

      Unfortunately I know very little about hermit saints. My area of expertise (though I wouldn't call myself an expert) is royal saints and they are a different lot altogether, despite the mutual embrace of humility and - especially in the case of Edward the Confessor - the Pauline disdain for worldly things. Consequently, I don't know whether other hermit saints also took up arms, as it were, against their tormentors. I thought victory in these cases generally were achieved through endurance rather than active opposition, but it would be very interesting to do a broad comparative study of hermit saint iconography.