Although he’s often overshadowed by similarly named Saint Anthony of Padua, this Egyptian saint is particularly important throughout southern Italy, and is the patron saint of butchers, domestic animals, basketmakers, and gravediggers; he also protects against skin diseases, especially shingles, known as “Fuoco di Sant’Antonio” (Fire of Saint Anthony) in Italy.
Born on January 12, AD 251, Saint Anthony the Abbot was a hermit who renounced his worldly possessions to follow Jesus and performed miracles throughout his life.
He’s considered the first to live a truly monastic lifestyle and during his 20 years in the desert, he was repeatedly tempted by the devil, persevering through prayer.
This aspect of the saint’s life is often portrayed in images of him with the devil at his feet.
Accounts of Anthony enduring supernatural temptation during his sojourn in the Eastern Desert of Egypt inspired the often-repeated subject of the temptation of Saint Anthony in Western art and literature.
Anthony maintained a very strict ascetic diet.
He consumed only bread, salt and water and never meat or wine.
He ate at most only once a day and sometimes fasted for two to four days.
Anthony was over 100 years old when he died in AD 356.
His disciples buried him in a secret place, but in AD 561 his remains were discovered, and his relics began a long journey from Alexandria to Constantinople, ending near Viennes in France in the 11th century.
In this place, a monastery dedicated to the saint was founded.
Today, Saint Anthony’s feast day is celebrated with processions, music and especially bonfires, which are lit and burn well into the night.
Though they take place across the whole nation, these festivities are particularly popular in central and southern Italy.
Perhaps the most famous bonfire festival is that of Fara Filiorum Petri in Abruzzo.
Cylindrical bundles of reeds are tied together with twigs of willow.
They can reach 10 metres in height and each district of the zone prepares their bundles during the summer months, so they remain dry.
In the early afternoon of January 17, the inhabitants of the various villages tow the bundles to the local church.
Here the imposing columns of reeds are raised upright while accordion players sing an oration to the saint followed by the ceremonial lighting of the bonfires.
Meanwhile in Rome, Saint Anthony’s feast day is celebrated at the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate on the Esquiline Hill, and locals take their animals to be blessed in the nearby Church of Sant’Eusebio, in Piazza Vittorio.
Further south, the Sicilian town of Nicolosi pays homage to Saint Anthony with ceremonies which begin before dawn, when the monks repeat their vows of dedication to God and to the saint.
Set against the striking backdrop of Mount Etna, the festival is filled with parades and solemn ceremonies.
Saint Anthony the Abbot lived a life of solitude, but there’s no doubt his legacy still brings people together every year on January 17.