Though he considered himself as first a sculptor, Michelangelo trained as a painter in Florence in the workshop of a leading master Domenico Ghirlandaio.
The Torment of Saint Anthony is one of the only four known technical paintings by Michelangelo that still exists.
The technical examination by conservators was really critical in establishing the authenticity of this painting. The examination involved having X-rays looking beyond the surface of the painting to see what the original drawing under the painting is.
From Michelangelo’s biographies, the subject of the painting came from a print that he was given to make a copy of. The print was an engraving of “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” by Martin Shnongaur.
However, he didn’t make an exact copy of the painting but made some small changes to the design, specifically with the landscape and the spacing between the demons. These are details that are only visible from the radiography. These changes just go to prove that this is indeed Michelangelo’s painting and not just an imitation of someone else’s work.
The subject of the painting is from the life of Saint Anthony the Great. It was written in the fourth century by Athanasius of Alexandria. The story depicts how Saint Anthony had a vision that he had been suspended in the air and then attacked by demons because he was able to withstand their temptations.
Saint Anthony is elevated in a rocky place surrounded by demons, all who have smirk looks on their faces. The rocks are in a large water body with mountains in the background. The teeth of the demons are painted in detail to show how sharp they are.
One of the things that Michelangelo did in the painting made the demons look more animal by giving a rough texture to the fur of the demon that’s swinging the bat at the top of the painting. To the left if this demon is a long-nosed demon with a scaly belly and a spiked back holding what look like a blazing stick. Michelangelo’s biographers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi wrote that he went to the fish market and examined the colours and scales and of fish to give the demonic creatures authenticity.
The painting gives a feel the chaos of Saint Anthony’s suffering. Using incredible detail, Michelangelo depicts what seems to be 9 demons with different types of claws pulling at the saint as he is carried through the air. It was indicated that the fact that Anthony was a Saint meant that he travelled from place to place by an angels wings due to his holiness but at this point, demos try to relieve him of his determination as he fights for his life.
Looking at the demons, they all have one purpose that is vividly shown on the painting, regardless of the fact that not all of them have wings and they all look different from each other. However, Saint Anthony’s white face remains without pain and shows deep empathy and a sense of hope that he will reach his destination. A detail of the painting that shows this, is Saint Anthony hardly holding on to his stick with tree fingers while there is a demon holding his right hand and the stick. At the same time, there is another demon trying to remove his halo as the other is pulling on his robe. Saint Anthony, though looking overburdened, is not looking at the demons around him but is looking off to the sky.