The Temptations of Saint Anthony1510 - 1515. Oil on oak panel, 70 x 115 cm.
Saint Anthony, whom the artist has been able to place in the immediate foreground of this panel by using a landscape format, closely resembles the saint depicted in the Saint Anthony triptych in Lisbon; he is wearing the same habit, the distinctive cape bearing the Tau cross and the customary rosary with a little bell. This large-scale figure, occupying most of the available space on the left of the panel, is shown leaning on a rock, hands joined as though in prayer; he is lost in thought, oblivious to his surroundings. Behind him, to the right of the composition, a house rises out of the river, the upper part taking the form of the head of an old woman. The dovecot perched hat-like on her head, the young nude woman at the door and the swan painted on the signboard -all suggestive of a brothel- allude to the sins of the flesh, and to the temptation which, on this occasion, Saint Anthony has resisted. This panel focuses not on the demon queen story narrated in the triptychs in Lisbon and Venice and even in the fragment of panel in Kansas, but rather on Eve’s sin, clearly suggested by the apple lying on the rock. Using a horizontal format, the artist had space enough to include a landscape of the kind favoured by Bosch, albeit less complicated than his. On the right, a woman is visible in a boat moored to the riverbank. To the left of the composition, on a tiny scale, some monks can be seen close to a burning monastery; the fire was presumably caused by the demons shown flying out of the flames. The fish flying into the clouds -also present in the Lisbon triptych- is being ridden by a figure whose habit and cowl appear to identify him as a Franciscan friar.
Some scholars maintain that this panel is the copy of a lost original by Bosch, and that the original -to judge by the foregrounding of the saint, depicted on a large scale at just over half length- must have been produced late in his career. This view takes as its reference point The Nativity in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, also regarded as a copy after a lost original, and also assumed to be a late work. There is another, considerably inferior, version of this panel in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Since it bears the spurious signature of Bosch in the lower right corner, it was long held to be earlier and better than the Prado panel. As recently as 2000 Van Schoute and Verboomen -unaware of the dendrochronology of either panel- argued that the Amsterdam version was the better of the two, and that both were the work of a follower, rather than copies of a Bosch original. Dendrochronological examination of the Amsterdam panel confirmed that the wood came from a tree felled after Bosch’s death, whereas Peter Klein’s dendrochronological analysis showed that the Prado panel was probably produced some time after 1486, possibly between 1510 and 1515, and thus during Bosch’s lifetime, making it clearly earlier than the Amsterdam version. Carmen Garrido and Roger van Schoute, in a 2001 technical study of the Bosch works in the Museo del Prado which includes dendrological data and other technical details of this panel, concluded that this was not a copy of a Bosch original, but rather by a follower who was somewhat lacking in imagination and imitated the master to the point of pastiche.
In the underdrawing, the main features of the composition are outlined in light strokes. Pentimenti are apparent in the outlines, in Saint Anthony’s hands -particularly with regard to the positioning of his fingers- and above all in the drapery folds. Slight changes of position are visible in the stick leaning beside the saint, the rosary and bell hanging from his belt, and the belt itself. Some trees in the background have also been reworked. In all, however, there are few compositional modifications, and radiography reveals virtually no colour changes, except for a minor variation in the old woman’s wimple; this raises doubts as to whether the panel is an original creation or a copy.
There is no reason why this panel -whether it be a copy or an original by a follower or workshop artist- should not have been produced in Bosch’s lifetime. However, given the paucity of information regarding Bosch’s workshop and the painting style of other artists in his family, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to confirm this hypothesis. The only evidence available is to be found in the materials themselves and the way the subject-matter is handled. Analysis of these suggests that, although the materials used for the Prado panel are similar to those employed by Bosch, the painter’s working method from the inside out -from the underdrawing right up to the pictorial layer- differed considerably. However, these differences do no rule out the possibility that the artist was copying an original by Bosch. The two features that would enable us to conclude that the alleged original by Bosch never existed or, if it existed, was not copied literally by the author of this panel, are the sheer amount of empty space and the small number of demons, which are relegated to the background; this panel lacks the horror vacui, the movement and the intensity of many of Bosch’s paintings, especially those dealing with what Felipe de Guevara describes as devils. Although there can be no certainty, everything suggests that this Temptations of Saint Anthony was produced by an artist employed at Bosch’s workshop, or by one of his assistants, using models by the master (Text drawn from Silva, P.: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2016, pp. 258-259).