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Finding St. Anthony: His Art and Miracles

ST. ANTHONY, please help me find my keys.” “St. Anthony, I lost my job and need to find a new one.” In some regions of the country where St. Anthony is revered as a celestial matchmaker, single women pray, “Oh, lovely St. Anthony, find me a lovely husband.” And if you’re a writer, you might beg the Franciscan saint to help you find the right words!

What reader hasn’t asked St. Anthony of Padua—patron of lost items and many other causes—for help in finding something? But how many of us ever go looking for St. Anthony? If we did, we’d find the friar’s likeness chiseled in stone, painted on murals, carved in wood and etched in stained glass.

He’s seen embracing the Christ Child, preaching to fish or holding a white lily, a symbol of purity. “Tony” even guards the poor box at the Jesuit-run Immaculate Conception Church in New Orleans, Louisiana. The poor box often benefits from the good fortune of bettors at a nearby racetrack.

What do all these artistic renditions have in common? They depict the amazing faith story and intercessory powers of this irresistible and universally loved saint. Come, St. Anthony is waiting to be found—in some very inspiring and miraculous artwork!

The Evangelical Fish

The miracle of St. Anthony preaching to the fish has captured the imagination of many artists over the centuries, including award-winning santeros (Spanish for “saint-makers”) Roberto Gonzales and Ernesto Salazar of New Mexico. Their jointly carved and painted bulto (statue) is a stunning representation of this divine fish tale.

When the friars discovered Anthony’s gift for preaching in 1222, they sent the Portuguese native out to preach and convert heretics. One day when Anthony’s sermon fell on deaf ears in Rimini, a seaport in northern Italy, he went down to the banks of the Marecchia River, where it flows into the Adriatic Sea. “Fish of the sea and the river, listen to the word of the Lord, since the heretics refuse to hear it,” Anthony called out.

“Suddenly, a great number of fish gathered near the banks and lifted their heads out of the water to listen,” says Gonzales, owner of De Colores Galleria in Old Town Albuquerque and a devotee of Anthony since the saint appeared to him in a dream some 30 years ago.

“The fish were all ears—or gills!” adds Salazar, a native of Taos, New Mexico.

Carved from ponderosa pine and cottonwood roots, their 16-inch Anthony stands on the seashore; the sandy beach is the work of Navajo sand-painter Albert Wood. Two dozen fish, assembled according to size with the smallest fry in front, seem mesmerized by the saint, their tiny mouths in a
perpetual “ooh.” In traditional New Mexico iconography, Anthony’s robe is painted blue.

“During the 17th and 18th centuries, New Mexico friars dyed their gray habits blue to promote the teaching of the Immaculate Conception of Mary,” explains Gonzales.

In Anthony’s left hand is a cross, while his right hand holds a Bible with the Christ Child sitting on top. The tiny globe in the Child’s hand and his painted red garment foretell his crucifixion and redemptive salvation for the whole world.

“When the heretics saw the fish listening to St. Anthony, many were converted,” Salazar says. “The fish had become fishers of men.”

The Adoring Mule

If Balaam’s donkey could bear witness to God in the Old Testament (Numbers 22:22-35), why not a mule in Anthony’s time? And so it happened that an ardent heretic at Bourges in central France—or as some accounts say, Rimini—got into a spirited debate with Anthony, a priest, over the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

“When the priest speaks the words, ‘This is my body,’ the essence of the bread is turned into the Body of Christ,” Anthony explained to the heretic.

Because the heretic didn’t believe in anything unseen, he challenged Anthony to a public experiment. He would starve his mule for three days. If after three days, the mule refused food and prostrated itself before the sacred host, the heretic would acknowledge Christ’s Real Presence. Meanwhile, it’s
said that Anthony also fasted.

What happened next is illustrated in an exquisite stained-glass window at St. Vincent Pallotti Catholic Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On the appointed day, the heretic, dressed in a fine green robe, appeared in the town square with the ravenous mule. Father Anthony, who had just celebrated Mass at a nearby church, approached with the monstrance held high.

“I command you, O mule, who are but a beast, to show Our Lord the veneration that is due him,” proclaimed Anthony, “so the heretic may be firmly convinced that every creature must be submitted to its Creator, whom the priests hold in their hands every day at the altar.

The heretic began waving a pan of oats under the mule’s nose. But the beast refused the fodder and, with head bowed in adoration, knelt on bended foreleg before the Blessed Sacrament. True to his word, the heretic professed his belief in the Real Presence and embraced the Catholic faith. With Anthony’s help, another lost soul had found his way to God.

The Miser’s Heart

Many of Anthony’s miracles reflect the teachings of Christ. That’s especially true with the story of Anthony and the avaricious moneylender, depicted in a bronze bas-relief on the altar frontal of St. Casimir Catholic Church, a 109-year-old parish in Baltimore, Maryland, with Polish roots.

While this miracle happened nearly 800 years ago, its message is timeless. According to one account, Father Anthony was in Italy’s Tuscany region, preaching on the Gospel passage, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Luke 12:34), when the moneylender’s body was brought into the church for his funeral. “He is already suffering in hell and should not be buried in consecrated ground,” Anthony declared, “and his corpse has no heart.”

The throngs of assembled mourners were aghast and, as depicted in the basrelief, a spirit of fear and repentance broke out. When the cadaver’s chest was cut open, Anthony found a money box instead of the man’s heart, according to the church’s Web site explanation of this replica of Donatello’s 15th-century masterpiece. The miser had chosen earthly wealth over eternal rewards.

As Anthony seekers discover, St. Casimir Church is a “little Padua.” “The whole altar is an exact replica of the altar” of the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, explains the former pastor, Father Ross Syracuse, O.F.M.Conv., adding that the altar also has a bas-relief of the fish miracle. “The only difference is that, in St. Casimir Church, one of the statues is of St. Casimir.”

A Foot Restored

Anthony had a divine gift to preach and convert sinners, but when one young man took a reprimand literally, the “wonder-worker” saint had to pray for a miracle to undo the deed! That story is told in a striking stained-glass window at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Rockford, Illinois, a centuryold
Italian parish.

One day during confession, Leonardo, a young man from Padua, told Father Anthony that he had kicked his mother so violently that she had fallen down. “The foot that kicks a mother or father ought to be cut off immediately,” admonished Anthony, adapting Jesus’ rhetorical teaching “if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 5:29).

Somewhat of a simpleton, Leonardo took Anthony’s words literally. He went home, took an ax and cut off his foot in remorse. When Anthony learned about the mutilation, he rushed to Leonardo’s house and began praying fervently. While holding the severed foot to Leonardo’s leg, Anthony made the sign of the cross. Miracle! The foot reattached itself, enabling Leonardo to leap up with joy, praising God’s mercy and goodness.

But there’s more to this stained-glass story, says Father John Grigus, O.F.M. Conv., former associate pastor, noting that Leonardo’s parents appear in the scene. Despite her son’s action, the mother “does not want any evil to fall upon him,” explains Father John, and the “son’s face is an exact replica of the father’s.” No matter what their son did, he is “‘bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh’ [see Genesis 2:23] and so they will not cease loving him.”

Anthony and the Christ Child

Perhaps no legend has inspired more Anthonian artwork than the Christ Child’s apparition to St. Anthony. According to one version—and there are many—Count Tiso IV owned a castle near Padua and built Anthony a hermitage where he could devote himself to study and prayer. Before retiring one night, Anthony was reading the Scriptures when suddenly the Word became flesh: The Christ Child was standing on the pages before him!

When Count Tiso, St. Anthony’s convert, went by the hermitage’s open door, he saw something beautiful beyond words. Engulfed in light, the Holy Child was holding out his arms to Anthony, who lovingly embraced the Child in return. When the vision ended, Anthony saw the count outside the door and pleaded, “Tell no one what you’ve seen until after my death.”

If legends abound about the apparition, so do artistic interpretations of that event. In an exterior mosaic at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan, Anthony holds the Child Jesus while the Child’s open arms seem to bless everyone passing by.

In a stunning French stained-glass window at St. John the Baptist Church in New Mexico’s Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, the Christ Child appears to leap from the Bible into the saint’s arms.

“It depicts the Word made flesh, always coming to those who seek him in Scripture the way St. Anthony did,” reflects Father Terry Brennan, former pastor, noting the parish’s deep Franciscan roots. In 1598, friars brought the faith to New Mexico and, near the pueblo’s current church, founded the first parish in the American Southwest.

And if ever Anthony had big sandals, it’s at the Surgery Center of St. Anthony Regional Hospital & Nursing Home in Carroll, Iowa. In a gigantic exterior frieze nearly 32 feet tall (Anthony’s feet are more than three feet long!), the artist has depicted yet another pose: The Infant, with hands folded in prayer, cuddles in Anthony’s arms. The award-winning frieze was modeled after a 106-year-old statue that still graces the hospital grounds.

But no artistic interpretation of Anthony and Child is more mystical than “The Great Vision of Anthony,” an enormous sculpture at Saint Anthony of Padua Church in Bedford, Massachusetts. In a 70-foot-high semi-rotunda above the main altar, a wide-eyed Anthony, kneeling at a prie-dieu, reaches up to embrace the Christ Child poised on a cloud above him. Behind the nearly five-foot statue, golden rays surround a 40-foot cross while angels praise God with timbrel, harp and stringed instruments.

“The scene is spiritually captivating,” says one admirer. “Anthony often preached on the Incarnation. Here, Jesus appears to him as a child yet is standing in the shadow of the cross—his divine mission. The essence of the whole Gospel is depicted in this scene.”

It’s “lost and found” with St. Anthony art. When you find the art, you can easily get lost in the message!

Sidebar: St. Anthony Bread

LIKE THE MULTIPLICATION OF THE LOAVES, artwork frequently presents St. Anthony holding bread. Some statues show Anthony with a loaf in one hand and the Christ Child in the other, while other statues depict both Anthony and the Child holding bread. Some “statuesque” bread sometimes looks so real that hungry children try to break off a piece! But St. Anthony Bread isn’t about the culinary arts (Anthony was never a baker by trade), but rather about feeding the poor.

Unlike other miracles featured in this article, the miracle of St. Anthony Bread happened after the friar’s death. According to one account, a young girl drowned in 1262 near today’s Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy. The mother prayed to St. Anthony and vowed that, if her daughter were
restored to life, she would give to the poor enough grain to equal the girl’s weight.

The mother’s example of great faith shines in a beautiful stained-glass window at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Rockford, Illinois. St. Anthony holds the hand of the little girl as her mother brings him the child’s weight in bread. Anthony, in turn, distributes the food to the hungry.

Today, St. Anthony Bread is a monetary offering given to the poor in honor of St. Anthony for his intercession and favors received. Many Franciscan organizations, including this magazine, accept donations to feed the homeless and working poor.