This saint was born in Lisbon and baptized Ferdinand. Originally an Augustinian canon, he was inspired by the example of a group of Franciscans martyred in Morocco to join that order in Italy. Under St. Francis, his name was changed to Anthony and, after a failed attempt to seek martyrdom in Morocco, he stayed in Italy to practice his considerable skills as a preacher, particularly against the Catharist heresy, which was gaining followers in the area at that time.1
Those who have visited any number of Catholic churches will be familiar with the representation of St. Anthony of Padua as a young Franciscan holding the Christ Child on one arm, as at right. This tradition is based on a vision of the Christ Child that the saint is said to have had while staying with a nobleman. The man peeked into the room he had provided for Anthony and saw him holding the Child in his arms.2
This account did not enter the iconography until the 16th century, and even then the child is shown placed upon the book that had until then always been Anthony's most common attribute (example). The book references Anthony's standing as the most famous preacher of his time and the Franciscan order's first Lector in Theology.3 The earliest images are like the second picture at right, with a closed book and the tonsure and habit of the Franciscan order.
After the child became a common feature, many painters put him on the opened pages of the book, as if he had appeared to Anthony while the saint was meditating on the scriptures (example). The child is variously portrayed as a toddler (example), a boy (example), or even a small-scale man (example).
Because of the legend that he had once preached to the fish, these were sometimes used as his attribute (example).4 He is also often seen with a lily stalk (example), which in one painting is given him by St. Joseph. Another convention denotes St. Anthony's visionary fervor by means of a red heart held up in the right hand (example), sometimes aflame (example).
In former Venetan areas Anthony often figures in group paintings – anachronistically welcoming into Heaven martyrs from ancient times (examples: St. Anthony of Antioch, St. Eugene) and assisting at the Invention of the True Cross (example). He is also shown interceding with Mary and the Christ Child for souls in Purgatory (example). This subject is possibly related to the story, briefly mentioned in his vita, of a nun who feared Purgatory but who through the prayers of Anthony was able to be cleansed in this life, or perhaps to the more numerous and fully detailed accounts of the saint coming from Heaven to counsel women in despair of their salvation.5
Considering the large number of Anthony portraits and statues in Italy and America, there are surprisingly few narrative images. One of the more popular types represents the "Miracle of the Mule": A Catharist said he would believe in the Real Presence only if a dumb animal were to prefer the consecrated host to a bundle of feed. Anthony arranged for a mule to be brought forward and given that choice. Sure enough, the mule went to the host and knelt down in adoration (example).6
The Franciscan Museum in Dubrovnik has a predella illustrating four other events from the saint's legend.
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-08-02.