There is an invisible protagonist, always called upon
and to whom every person and fact unavoidably refers: God.
Each time, St. Anthony is presented as His messenger
and a mediator between men and their deeds. Early
biographies of Saint Anthony adopt two very basic and
even opposite standpoints.
While Vita prima, Víta secunda and Raymundina,
present an image of Anthony as very serious and even lacking
a miraculous aura during his earthly existence. The Benignitas
biography and the Rigaldina, do not limit
themselves to recalling the "moral" miracles;
but rather they interweave the undertakings and life of this
apostle and worker of astounding miracles.
second approach began in the fourteenth century. From
then on a sort of "conspiracy" came about in that
all hagiographic compilations concerning St. Anthony tended
increasingly towards the thaumaturgical element, until St.
Anthony almost disappeared into a radiant aura of miracles.
What are the motives for this phenomenon?
Often this legendary aura was attributed to events which,
originally, did not have miraculous connotations. Examining
a documented fact, the encounter between the Saint and Ezzelino
was a normal meeting between a popular preacher who was highly
esteemed in the Veneto region and a politician who turned
a deaf ear to humanitarian and religious reasoning. In the
Benignitas biography the meeting is completely retold:
the protagonists are enveloped in the supernatural.
2. At other times, older sources attest to the intervention
of a supernatural power. Thus, the "miraculous"
aspect exists. But it is accentuated, amplified, by the addition
of new miraculous components. For example, the Paduan girl,
according to the initial account, was cured little by little.
The Benignitas, in retelling the account, renders the
cure instantaneous and moving.
Some exceptional events were recorded, however, several
details of these accounts do not tally, showing that they
have been handed down from either the oral tradition or are
remembered accounts of what was written somewhere else.
Later hagiographers gathered such accounts together as if
the event was repeated. An example being bilocation, Benignitas
relates an event in Montpellier during a ceremony which is
not specified, in Rigaldina the event occurred instead
in Limoges on Holy Thursday.
There is no need to marvel if at times the narration
seems to be identical to the accounts of other saints.
Since we are dealing more with constructing an image than
with "true" history, it is possible that these stories
have found their way into the Anthonian legend from elsewhere.
One example being: who performed the miracle of the reattached
foot, Saint Anthony or Saint Peter the Martyr? A similar story
can be read in the miraculous accounts of both saints.
There are also cases of artistic dramatisations. It
is well-known that first generation Franciscans had to fight
against Catharism which denied, amongst other things, the
true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Thus, this aspect
of St. Anthony's apostolate was translated into the form of
a sacred drama and concentrated into a single, intense and
moving scene: the mule which kneels before the consecrated
A parallel phenomenon is the translation of Biblical passages
into figurative/narrative forms. "Where you keep
your treasure, there too is your heart", as Christ said.
The saying comes true to the letter in the miracle of the
usurer, whose heart could not be found in his chest, but instead
was amongst the precious items and his money locked in his
narration of miracles is thus a very complex literary genre.
Each of the numerous miracles attributed by hagiographers
to Anthony's intercession, whether carried out whilst
alive, or once he had passed away, require detailed study.
a literary point of view, these tales are not excellent literature.
There are often dull pages, thick with pomposity, unimaginative
clichés, without a hint of poetry, and completely lacking
in psychological insight into the personality of St. Anthony,
or those unfortunate individuals who ask for his help.
A suffocating spiritual narrow-mindedness can be noted more
than once, along with the dominance of a self-centred religiosity,
however earnest this may be. But even such opaque texts
inspired painters and sculptors to high levels of spirituality.
Raw material in the hands of Giotto, Donatello, Titian, El
Greco, Murillo, Tiepolo, Goya... (St. Anthony is very lucky
in art), was transformed into high drama, into ecstasy, into
exceptional expressions of liberation and of pain, of reproach
and of praise. Art is capable of extracting life even from
death, and the sublime from mediocrity.
are the miracles befitting a travelling preacher, they
reveal the burning desire to save souls. He exists exclusively
as a living mediator between Christ and the children
of God dispersed throughout history, he is a trait d'union
between the Redeemer and the redeemed.
Christians of his day, both in Italy and in France, were
believers who were only very crudely introduced into the faith
in terms of understanding its doctrine and ethics. Theirs
was a traditional religion, which needs to be renewed and
deepened in its terms of revelation, defending it against
the snares of heresy and prevailing vices. This is the reason
for the miracles which support the Christ's true presence
in the Eucharist (miracle of the mule), or which underline
the authority of his teaching, (for example: the poisoned
food, preaching to the fish), or which renew his battle against
usury (the macabre tale of the heartless usurer).
other occasions we see St. Anthony concerned with providing
relief to the material suffering of the people, and blocking
the way to hateful abuse at the hands of governments
(for example: the stormy meeting with Ezzelino, the tale of
the twelve thieves, the pious woman of Provence). Notable
artists have been inspired by other miraculous events, the
new born who speaks, the jealous husband, the reattached foot,
which portray Anthony as the defender of family harmony. The
importance of the Sacrament of Confession is emphasised, and
many miracles are linked to this theme, forming part of the
he abandoned his family of birth and he left the Augustinian
Order, he was a loving son and brother, close to both
his family and friends (transferred from Padua to Lisbon,
his apparition to Abbot Thomas). Deeper still was his attachment
to his minor confreres. He took on the burden of their troubles,
he helped avoid possible disorder in the monastery and cloistered
life, foiled diabolical turbulence which put meditation at
risk, and took care of the nutritional needs of his monastery
etc. (for example: the young Noviciate of Limoges, the diabolical
phantasmagoria, bilocation in Montpellier, the maid who went
to gather vegetables under the rain).
these episodes help to reconstruct the historical figure
of Saint Anthony, they disclose his moral constitution,
his feelings of evangelical solidarity, the worries of a teacher
of the faith and a guarantor of the authenticity of consecrated
life. The most touching miracle however, which analyses
in depth the Saint's soul, is the apparition of the Baby
Jesus. Saint Anthony glows here in ecstasy, absorbed in
divine intimacy, by deep and sweetly emotional faith, with
transports of joy and the features of someone who is deeply
is common to say that medical specialists at Lourdes, "declare"
the truth of a certain miracle. This expression is not
exact, and we need to be careful. The declaring of
miracles does not form part of a doctor's job. His task is
to declare that a recovery, according to the current state
of medical research, is inexplicable. It is possible
that in the future, medical science will be able to solve
so far as a miracle is concerned, only a believer can discern
it, in a aura of faith. This is another very different
type of knowledge, beyond experimental science. We must cultivate
an attitude of adoring silence, which enable us to be
transparent to that interior light, thanks to which we can
discern a divine presence: "You have hidden these things
from the wise and the intelligent, and have revealed them
to infants" (Lk 10,21).
Anthony continues to give two types of grace. Above all,
through the clear signs of Providence, St. Anthony directs
the religious thought of many people towards Christ, he
supports wavering faith during the ups and downs of life,
guiding us towards the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist,
surprising whoever is distant or disinterested in God with
the interior fascination of conversion. For many Christians,
St Anthony represents perhaps the only concrete point of reference,
which can foster and develop a relationship with God in the
midst of the turmoil of life.
St. Anthony extends God's heart into the world, giving
faith and hope. Family or work problems, the straying
of children or illnesses: there are many occasions in life
when men feel powerless. The Saint, so attentive in life to
the needs of the family, continues to be God's concrete
and favoured mediator in the Church.
children must ask our God for something. Everything that exists
in this is nothing, compared to our love for God. We must
therefore ask to love God, sustaining Him in His weakest and
sickest members, feeding Him in the poor and needy. If we
ask for Love, then, the same Father, who is Love, will give
us what He is: Love!" (From the Sermones, vol. I, pp.