David II Teniers (Antwerp, 1610 – Brussels, 1690)
Saint Anthony visiting Saint Paul

Oil on canvas
109 x 143 cm
Signed at the bottom in the middle “D. TENIERS”

Inv. D.2009.1.11

On loan – private collection

Major works | Earthly & Spiritual Matters

Landscape with a rock

The hermit Saint Anthony, living alone on Mount Qolzum in Thebaid, decides, after a dream, to set off in search of Saint Paul, also an anchorite. Guided by a centaur and satyr, he manages to reach the cave of Saint Paul, who explains to him that for sixty years a crow has been bringing him half a loaf of bread every day. On the day Saint Anthony and Saint Paul meet, the crow brings a whole loaf of bread.

David II Teniers chose to illustrate this story from the Golden Legend: in the sky in the middle of the composition is the crow holding the meagre meal for the two monks in his beak. The water skin and bowl at the two men’s feet in the bottom left-hand corner symbolise the fast they have imposed upon themselves: water and bread only. Nothing but spiritual food, represented by the book of Scripture, seen open here, sustains them; it lifts their soul up and away from the sufferings of the flesh. The skull, a reflection of the vanities of the world, placed on a rock, marks the separation between two worlds: on the one hand the desert, a source of meditation and introspection, and on the other the hustle and bustle of the world, a sure enough obstacle to contemplation.

The composition of the painting reiterates this dichotomous vision, split into two equal parts. On the left, the dark cave made from large solid blocks of stone completely bare of any vegetation obstructs the horizon and focuses the sights of the two monks. It is a rampart that isolates and protects them. Nothing must come and disturb their refuge. On the right, in the middle ground, is a rocky landscape topped by a village or town – giving a glimpse of the hinterland.