St. Anthony of Padua was a Franciscan friar of the thirteenth century, celebrated for his piety and eloquence. He was a Portuguese by birth, and early in life determined to be a Christian missionary. His first labors were in Africa, but being seized by a lingering illness, he returned to Europe and landed in Italy. Here he came under the influence of St. Francis of Assisi, who was just establishing a new religious order. The rules were to be very strict: the members could possess nothing of their own, but were to beg their food and raiment of fellow Christians. They were to mingle with the people as brothers, hence friars,[3] ministering to their bodily needs, and advising, comforting, and admonishing in higher concerns. What sort of a habit they wore we may see in our picture. There was a long dark brown tunic made with loose sleeves, and having a sort of hood attached. The garment was fastened about the waist with a knotted rope. By this strange girdle the wearer was continually reminded that the body is a beast to be subdued by a halter.

[3] From the French frère.

On account of his learning, St. Anthony became a teacher of theology. He was connected successively with the universities of Bologna, Toulouse, Paris, and Padua, and with this last city his name has ever since been associated. At length, however, he forsook all other employments and devoted himself wholly to preaching among the people.

These were troublous times in Italy, when the poor were cruelly oppressed by the rich. St. Anthony espoused the cause of those who were wronged, and denounced all forms of tyranny. His influence was a great power among the people, and many stories are told of his preaching. It is related that one day, as he was explaining to his hearers the mystery of the Incarnation, the Christ-child appeared to him as in a vision.

It is this story which the painter had in mind in our picture: St. Anthony kneels before the mother and babe in an ecstasy of devotion. An open book lies on the ground beside him, as if he had been conning its pages when the vision broke upon him. The landscape surroundings are especially appropriate, for St. Anthony was fond of out-of-door life. His sermons were often given in the open air, and it is said that he sometimes preached to the fishes. He delighted to point out to his hearers the beauties of nature, the whiteness of the swan, the mutual charity of the storks, and the purity and fragrance of the lilies.

THE VISION OF ST. ANTHONY Brera Gallery, Milan
Brera Gallery, Milan

The poetic refinement of his nature is indicated in his face. He is young and handsome, with the gentle expression which used to win the hearts of his hearers. There is little here to show the more forcible elements of his character. The tonsured head is the common mark of membership in religious orders.

The Christ-child bends forward to caress the saint's face with his tiny hand. He is a loving little fellow, not particularly pretty, except in his infantine plumpness, yet the face is full of innocent sweetness. A mysterious light shines above his head, the emblem of divinity. The good friar does not presume to touch the holy child, but folds his hands reverently across his breast. His eyes are lifted with the rapt look of the visionary.

St. Anthony's biographers tell us how he loved to recite the old Latin hymn by St. Fortunatus, beginning,—

O Gloriosa Domina
Excelsa super sydera.
[O most glorious Lady
Exalted above the stars.]

We may fancy that in the ecstasy of this vision these lines now rise to his lips. The last stanza expresses the sum of his adoration:—

Gloria tibi Domine
Qui natus es de Virgine
Cum Patre et sancto Spiritu
In sempiterna saecula.
[Glory to thee, O Lord,
Who wast born of a Virgin,
With the Father and Holy Spirit
For eternal ages.]

It is easy to see from a comparison of this picture with the Rest in Egypt that it was painted at about the same time. We at once recognize the mother and child of the other illustration, and note the similarity in pose. We may imagine the Madonna bending forward and holding the babe a little lower on her lap, and we should have the grouping as it is here.

In their pictures of the Madonna, the old painters tried to express their highest ideals of womanhood. The mother Mary represented to them all that is strongest and sweetest in a woman's character. So this Madonna by Van Dyck is a gracious and queenly figure modelled upon the stately Virgin of Titian.

The linear composition of the picture is carefully planned; the basis is the pyramidal form. From the top of the Virgin's head diverge the two oblique lines which enclose the diagram. The mantle fluttering behind the mother's shoulder balances the part of St. Anthony's tunic which lies on the ground.

We may well believe that the painter took especial pleasure in working on this picture, because he himself bore the name of the good St. Anthony.