Part I: Background and Analysis of Odilon Redon’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was born in Bordeaux, France, and studied art in Paris. (Cotter, 2005) Redon was an avid reader of Decadent era authors Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Flaubert in his youth, spending much of his time in solitude. In Paris, he developed an individual style, becoming best known for his charcoal sketches and lithography. His art, heavily inspired by his childhood in the countryside as well as gothic folklore, was distinct in that “instead of choosing between imagination and mimesis, fantasy and nature, Redon deployed one to get the other” (Hauptman, 24). When describing his artistic philosophy, Redon writes: “It is only after making an effort of will to produce a meticulous depiction of a blade of grass, a stone, a branch, a bit of old wall, that I feel almost tormented to create something imaginary” (25). Gustave Flaubert’s novel “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” is characterized by a scintillating imagery of all things fantastical, serving to illustrate an intense religious and moral critique: due to this, it is not surprising that it caught Redon’s artistic taste.
When The Temptation of Saint Anthony was published, Redon was immediately shaken by the intense characters and images described by Flaubert. He commented on the novel: “It is a literary marvel and a mine for me” (Dickey). In 1888, Redon decided to release a collection of ten lithographs illustrating Flaubert’s novel. The novel easily resonated with Redon’s style: as an artist concerned with nature, the grotesque and the fantastic, Flaubert’s supernatural scenes were a treasure trove of artistic inspiration. As art historian Stephen F. Eisenman comments, “Like Flaubert, Redon saw himself as unique, an accident, a monster, and all the more remarkable an artist for these very reasons” (Eisenman, 25).
Cover of Lithograph Collection, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony: Illustrations” By Odilon Redon. (MoMA)
In the collection of lithographs “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, Redon transposes certain images of the text into black and white marks on paper. Each image is captioned with a direct quote from Flaubert’s novel, describing the exact scene being illustrated. His images “read like anagrams,” inviting the viewer to “create order out of the apparent chaos” (Eisenman, 25).
“Saint Anthony: Beneath her long hair, that covered her face, I thought I recognized Ammonaria.” To Gustave Flaubert, 1889. (Wilder, 2012).
In the image above, Redon depicts Ammonaria, the virgin who suffers martyrdom in his hallucination of Alexandria. This image was not in the original portfolio “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” but published later in a larger volume of prints titled “Dedicated to Gustave Flaubert” in 1889. Redon created ten separate proofs of this image, highlighting its importance. (The Fitzwilliam Museum) This image truly exhibits Redon’s mastery in the use of light and shadow, as well as an ability to capture Flaubert’s scene in a moment in time. Eisenman describes this piece as an “odd stillness which obscures the exact nature of the depicted action. Is the tormentor bringing back the flagellum or casting it forward? Does the woman recoil from the blows or turn expectantly to receive them? Do we receive an ambient of pain or desire?” (216) These questions immediately bring up Flaubert’s thematic concerns of sin, guilt, violence, and self-inflicted pain.
Decadence can be “described as a series of refusals: of the visible world, of religious faith, of love, of community, of nature,” causing artists to turn instead to “the exquisite refinements of sensation.” (Hauptman, 23). Odilon Redon is invariably presented as an artist of this era, a creator of those soul-wrenching images that touch upon these refusals. Incidentally, Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans, prior to the release of Au Rebours, writing at the time, reviewed the collection of Lithographs in his work “Le Salon” of 1879:
“Another artist has recently come forward and offered to France the painting of the fantastic; I wish to speak of M. Odilon Redon. Here is the nightmare transposed into art. Plunged into a macabre milieu, imagine somnambulistic characters, twisted with fear, having a vague kinship to those of Gustave Moreau, and perhaps you will have an idea of the bizarre talent of this most singular artist.” (Eisenman, 102)
Huysman was so roused by this collection, that he later “paid homage to Odilon Redon in his classic novel Au Rebours, in which the main character Des Esseintes collects prints by Redon… A move that helped catapult Redon into the mainstream [of the Decadent movement].” Huysman’s praise did not go unreciprocated; after reading Au Rebours, Redon released a lithograph titled “Des Esseintes,” depicting this antihero of decadence in black and white (Dickey).
There is a certain darkness that defines Redon’s depictions of St. Anthony’s visions. Unlike the past artistic interpretations of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, these sketches plumb specific moments of the sensual, phantasmagorical experience of Saint Anthony’s night in the desert. In the image below, Redon captures the moment in which Anthony questions the Devil on the purpose of God. The chalk-white face of the Devil is cocked at an unnerving angle, appearing to stare intently at something behind the spectator. The inscrutability of the Devil’s expression captures the ambiguity of his aims; is he merely challenging Saint Anthony’s beliefs, or is there a stronger reason behind his critiques, perhaps rooted in truth?
“Saint Anthony: What Is the Purpose of All This? The Devil: There Is No Purpose!”, by Odilon Redon from his “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Dickey).
The hair and shadow behind the Devil melts into the shaded figure of Saint Anthony, in contemplation behind the Devil. While the Devil’s facial features are clearly defined, Anthony’s expression is blurred in gray shading. Emile Hennequin, a young admirer of Redon’s, accurately captured this unsettling quality in his description of the collection as “a treasure of dreams and suggestions which should be used cautiously.” These dreams and suggestions seem to lie in the obscure expressions of Flaubert’s characters.
“And in the same disc of the sun shines the face of Jesus Christ,” Odilon Redon. Plate X in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1888. Lithograph. (Wilder).
The tenth and final image of Redon’s original collection is the depiction of the last scene of The Temptation of Saint Anthony: “Even in the midst thereof, and in the very disc of the sun, beams the face of Jesus Christ. Anthony makes the sign of the cross, and resumes his devotion” (Faubert, 191). And thus, the novel is finished, leaving us with a vast sense of contradiction; is the nightmare truly over? Can Anthony go back to his previous life of ascetiscism, even after this night of unholy terrors and religious challenge? Redon illustrates this jarring image of Jesus Christ as a sun in the midst of a brooding, explosion-like black shadow. This intense black radiating from the sun inevitably taints the image with a feeling of mystery and uncertainty, a feeling akin to what the reader is left with at the end of the novel.
Part 2: Discussion Questions (Part 2 of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, pg. 115-191)
1. When the Goddess of Idean appears, the faithful band of followers begins a worshipping frenzy, which quickly transforms into a scene of self-flaggellation, and the sacrifice of a lamb: “She is sorrowful, let us be sorrowful! Our suffering is necessary in order to please her! Thereby your sins will be remitted. Blood purifies all– flings its red drops abroad like blossoms!” (134). While he says nothing of this, when the lamb is being sacrificed, Anthony is “siezed with horror.”
Why does he seem to recognize the slaying of the lamb as a more barbaric sacrifice than self-flagellation? Does this serve to point out the hypocrisy of his beliefs? Is he unable to see fault or sin in self-inflicted pain?
2. Caught in a whirlwind of these indulgent pagan Gods, Anthony laments sorrowfully of the “souls that may have been lost to these false Gods.” (141) Hilarion in response, states: “But luxury, in its greatest fury, has all the disinterestedness of penitence. The frenzied love of the body accelerates the destruction thereof– and proclaims the extent of the impossible by the exposition of the body’s weaknesses.” Hilarion seems to accept that by putting a premium on the body, degeneracy is inevitable. However, is the appreciation and celebration of the physical, the exposition to sensory pleasures, not also a means for vulnerability? How does this challenge Anthony’s idea of vulnerability? If one can commit penitence through the flesh, why can one not commit sin through the flesh?
3. The Devil tells Anthony: “But evil and good concern only thee– even like the night and day, pleasure and pain, death and birth, which are relative only to one corner of space, to a special centre, to a particular interest.” He pushes even further, stating: “The knowledge of things come only to thee through the medium of thy mind. Even as a concave mirror, it deforms the objects it reflects, and thou hast no mean whatever of verifying their exactitude.” (168) The Devil’s assertions go back to Plato’s Theory of Forms– essentially, he seems to tell Anthony that he will always be chained inside the cave, living in a subjective reality. Have all of Anthony’s ant-temptation thoughts and actions throughout the nightmare been in vain? Is the presence of his doubt a confirmation that he has already inherently been tempted? How does this relate back to Hilarion’s accusation of his chastity as corruption?
4. At the very end of the novel, an intertwining of Lust and Death occurs, creating a fantastical creature: “It is a skull, crowned with roses, dominating the torso of a woman nacreously white. Below, a shroud starred with specks of gold forms something of a tail, and the whole body undulates, after the fashion of a gigantic worm erect on end.” (178) Anthony recognizes this creature as “The Devil yet again, under his twofold aspect: The spirit of fornication, and the spirit of destruction.” (179) Why does Flaubert choose to introduce a fusion of Lust, a temptation, and Death, a fear, into a depiction of the Devil? Does this portray Anthony’s greatest want and his greatest terror?
5. The final line of the novel is ” Anthony makes the sign of the cross, and resumes his devotions.” (191) Why does he so swiftly back to devotion after this nightmare? Is Flaubert taking an “easy way out,” so to speak, or is this a way for him to leave the reader on edge?
 Sketches created by writing in greasy crayon on slabs of stone and then printing them with rolled-on ink. The word is so called from the Latin for stone,litho, and mark, graph. (Met Museum)