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St Anthony Abbot, in 'The Desert of Religion'

St Anthony Abbot, in 'The Desert of Religion'

Medium: Ink and pigments on vellum

Date: 1425

Shelfmark: Cotton MS Faustina B VI, vol. II

Item number: f.4v

Length: 25.2

Width: 19.8

Scale: Centimetres

Genre: Illuminated manuscript

Allegory, or extensive use of symbolism in a moralising story, has a long tradition in Christian literature. 'The Desert of Religion', a poem in a northern English dialect, uses the symbol of a forest to expound the daily spiritual battle of virtue and vice. This copy has tinted half-page drawings of devotional figures with verses inscribed around them. Facing them, diagrams in the shape of trees bear the names of virtues and vices on their trunks and leaves, giving visual form to the poem's allegory. The book was made for a religious community, the location of which is now unknown. The 'Desert of Religion' verses are arranged on one side, and the picture fills the other half of the page. It shows St Anthony Abbot, the archetypal hermit, praying in the 'desert'. He carries a bishop's staff, is tonsured (monk's haircut), has white hair and curled beard, the detail beautifully modelled in the fine tinted drawing technique. A former swineherd, St Anthony usually has a pig somewhere nearby to confirm his identity: here a belled pig raises itself on its haunches. The scene illustrates the surrounding verses, 'I went in to wilderness and closed me in a cave.'

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