Saint Anthony of Padua and the Christ Child

In 1975, I was working in Bogota, Colombia for the World Bank. One of my leisure activities was visiting antique shops. I was interested in colonial-era portraits, but hardly thought of buying one until one day, the shop keeper unrolled an oil painting of the Christ child and a saint, which had been taken out of its original frame and rolled up. I was immediately captivated by the loving relationship between the Christ child and the saint. Although the painting was cracked in many places, I liked it so much I bought it for $400, which was a lot of money in those days.

Upon my return home, I took the painting to Mickelson’s Fine Art Framing and Restoring in Washington, D.C. Mr. Mickelson examined the painting and explained that to fully stabilize and restore the surface of the painting, a great deal of effort would be required. We agreed on a price of $500.  

A new canvas back was placed over the deteriorated original canvas, and glued to a backboard. A great deal of smoke residue - probably from incense – had to be carefully removed from the painting’s surface. Finally, the saint’s tunic had been painted over in green, which had to be removed to reveal the tunic’s original light blue color, which is the color worn by some Franciscan Friars (others wear brown).

Mr. Mickelson and his assistants did a wonderful job, but took so long he complained the restoration was way over budget.  No signature was found on the painting. My recollection is that unsigned works of art are not uncommon among early religious art in colonial Latin America. A gilded frame was made for me by a Bogota artisan who specialized in copying colonial Pan de Oro gilded frames. The painting and frame are 40 inches high and 35 inches wide.

This painting has been identified by artist Brian Whelan, who has painted many religious themes, as depicting Saint Anthony of Padua and the Christ child. Saint Anthony was a 13th century Franciscan Friar, who was, and is renowned for his piety, humility, and teaching of scripture to the multitudes. Brian Whelan believes, as I do, that this painting probably hung in a Colombian monastery or convent for a very long time.

The painting re-tells the classical story of what happened when Anthony visited the church on the property of Count Tiso, eleven miles from Padua. The church was a hermitage, and Anthony prayed in one of its cells. One night, Count Tiso was passing the church, saw a brilliant light inside, went in and saw Anthony holding the Christ child on his lap.

Anthony is most often depicted as holding the Christ child in his arms, with a lily, or a book, or all three. In this painting, the Christ child has one arm around Anthony’s neck, and the other holding five lilies, three of which have not bloomed.  Anthony is wearing a light blue tunic worn by many Franciscans. His tonsure is not visible because of the painting’s dark background and his upright posture. The base of a pillar or column in the background of the painting is consistent with the location of the event inside a church. Paintings showing St. Anthony holding the Christ child are said to first appear in the 17th century. This is also consistent with Brian Whelan’s belief that this painting dates from the 18th century.

Many thanks to Kathleen and Neil Hughes, who made this gift to St. James' in  January 2021

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