Anthony was born in 251 AD at Coma (now Qumans), a village near the city of Great Heracleopolis on the west bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt, in a wealthy Christian family. His parents wanted to protect him from pagan influences, so he grew up at home without learning Greek or classical literature.
He became orphan at the age of 18, and decided to change his life when, during a mass, he was listening to the Gospel of St. Matthew XIX, 21, in which Christ says to the rich young man, "Go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor." Anthony followed these words.
He devoted himself to a life of prayer: he distributed his family land (one hundred and twenty acres) to the neighbouring peasants, sold other goods to give money to the poor, then brought his sister to a "house of virgins," one of the earliest kinds of Christian nunnery, and finally began a solitary life consisting of prayer, poverty and chastity, like other hermits in the desert.
Image: a Coptic icon, showing, in the lower left, St. Anthony with St. Paul the First Hermit. Source: By User Afanous on en.wikipedia (St Anthony) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At first he set near Coma, by an old hermit from whom he learned the way of life and work. Afterwards he retired to a solitary place continuing manual labor and prayer: his choice was a tomb carved into the rock near the village of Coma, where a friend brought him nothing but bread. Anthony slept on a rush mat, drank just water and dressed only in a rough cloth.
Tradition reports that Anthony was afflicted by several temptations. It is told that he was tormented by the devil, who assumed the form of different beasts and attacked him with obscene thoughts to make him desist from his exemplary life, it is also told that he was beaten several times. One day some men of the area found him on the ground, beaten and unconscious. They took care of him until he recovered. Impressed by his holiness and wisdom, more and more people came to visit him, in order to get hints and consolation.
Anthony was always under temptations and doubts but followed the precept to pray without ceasing. Only when he saw that he could no longer live alone due to the numerous followers, at the age of thirty-five, he crossed the Nile and moved further into the mountains of Pispir, where there was a Roman fort, abandoned and infested with snakes, but with a spring source. There he lived for almost twenty years, visited by a man who brought him bread twice a year.
Image: "scenes from the Life of St. Anthony the Great" by Dutch painter Cornelis Cornelisz (1493-1544).
Source: Attributed to Cornelis Cornelisz. Kunst (circa 1493–1544) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Anthony lived in continuous prayer and meditation in search of purification.
His asceticism attracted a growing number of believers, so that the followers broke down the walls of the fort, in order to be close to him. Anthony devoted himself to taking care of the sick people, especially the ones possessed by devils, and also comforting the afflicted and giving advice on the Christian life.
His hieratic, serious and penitent figure, with face burned by the sun but firm, and the clarity of his speeches attracted many young people who gathered around him in a sort of monastic school. In his fifty-fifth year he came down from his mountain place of retirement and founded his first monastery, near Aphroditopolis. It was made up of scattered tiny cells, each inhabited by a solitary monk. Ilarius (292-372), a Palestinian, who later became hermit and saint, visited Anthony in 307 to understand how to set up a monastic community, which he founded later at Gaza.
In 311 during the persecution of Emperor Maximinus Daia, Anthony went to the great city of Alexandria, where the imperial court resided, to support the persecuted Christians. He visited the impisoned Christians, assisted them during the trials, challenged the judge and invited the persecuted to the death through martyrdom, impressing the whole city with his speeches.
With the coming of Constantine the Great, Anthony's disciple Athanasius wrote a letter to the emperor to intercede for him. He returned for the second time in Alexandria, invited by Athanasius, who managed to convince him to support openly the Council of Nicaea in the condemnation of Arianism (one of the theological teachings of that time) as heresy. He made many converts and worked several miracles. Anthony disputed and argued with bishops, philosophers and rulers, carrying out his discussions with the Greeks through an interpreter. He obtained victory over them and his reputation among people became immense. The governor of Egypt invited him to stay longer in the city, but he refused and returned to his mountains. Very much impressed, Emperor Constantine and his sons Constantius and Constans wrote him letters, calling him father and commending to his prayers. Anthony told to his astonished followers: "Do not wonder that the Emperor writes to us, even to a man such as I am; rather be astounded that God has communicated with us, and has spoken to us through His Son." Replying to the letter, he encouraged the Emperor and his sons to the righteous living, remembering constantly about the final judgment.
Anthony became so popular and was surrounded by so many faithful, that he moved again to a more isolated place on Mount Colzim (now Jebel Qulzum), in the desert of Thebes near the Red Sea. There he lived isolated, praying and cultivating a small garden for his sustenance.
His disciples in the meanwhile organized the followers into two groups of monks that gave rise to many monasteries. Anthony maintained contacts with other hermits, including St. Paul of Thebes, who was buried, according to a legend, by Anthony himself, with the help of a lion. For this episode, Anthony is considered the patron saint of gravediggers. Anthony died exactly at the age of 106 years, on 17 January 356.
Image: "visit of St Anthony to St Paul and the temptations of Anthony" by German Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528). Detail from the Isenheimer Altar, an altarpiece on display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, in France.
Source: "Grunewald Isenheim3 WingsLR". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
In 561 his relics were transferred to Alexandria and placed in the church of St John, where they rested until 635, when, following the Arab occupation of Egypt, were brought to Constantinople.
There they remained until the eleventh century, before being taken to France by the noble Jocelin de Chateau Neuf, who obtained them as a gift from the Emperor of Constantinople.
In 1070, Guigues de Didier, Jocelin's descendant, built a church in the village of La Motte-Saint-Didier near Vienne, where the relics were translated on the site of a Benedictine priory. The village became known as Saint Antoine l'Abbaye.
In 1095, a local noble, Gaston Valloire, decided to found a community dedicated to the treatment of ergotism (a disease known also as "St. Anthony's Fire" and spread in the Middle Ages, the consequence of the long-term ergot poisoning). The decision followed a vow made by him, in gratitude for the mercy to his son who had been healed from this terrible illness.
In the same year, Gaston, with his son and five other nobles of the Dauphiné region, obtained the approvation by Pope Urban II for the creation of the order as a confraternity. This was confirmed by Pope Honorius III by the papal bull in 1218.
In 1297 Pope Boniface VIII, with the bull “Ad apostolicae dignitatis”, changed it into the order of regular canons according to the rule of St. Augustine, giving rise to the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony or Canons Regular of St. Anthony of Vienne, known more briefly as the Order of St. Anthony of Viennois or Vienne.
Today a part of his relics rest also in the Cathedral of Saint Trophimus in Arles, Provence.