Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, having travelled to Italy in the autumn of 1786, wrote in his journal from Rome on January 18th, 1787 of a venerable Catholic ceremony which we now associate with St Francis but which was then conducted under the auspices of St Anthony, the patron saint of domestic animals.
Yesterday, the Feast of St Anthony, we had a wonderful time. Though there had been frost in the night, the day turned out beautifully warm and clear.
It is a matter of historical observation that all religions, as their ritual or their theological speculation expands, must sooner or later reach the point of allowing the animals to share to some extent in their spiritual pilgrimage. St Anthony, abbot or bishop, is the patron saint of all four-footed creatures and his feast is a saturnalia for these otherwise oppressed animals and for their keepers and drivers as well. The gentry must either walk or stay at home, and the people love to tell fearful stories of unbelieving masters who forced their coachmen to drive on this day and were punished by serious accidents.
The church stands on a square which is so large that, normally, it looks empty, but today it is full of life. Horses and mules, their manes and tails gorgeously braided with ribbons, are led up to a small chapel, detached from the church proper, and a priest, armed with an enormous brush, sprinkles them with holy water from tubs and buckets in front of him. He does this generously, vigorously and even facetiously so as to excite them. Devout coachmen offer candles of various sizes, their masters send alms and gifts, so that their valuable, useful beasts may be protected against every kind of accident during the coming year. Donkeys and horned cattle also get their modest share of blessing.
Later we took a long diverting walk under the blessed Italian sky. We were surrounded by objects of interest, but this time we ignored them and abandoned ourselves to fun and frolics.
The St Anthony here is not of course St Anthony of Padua (who was actually Portuguese and who will help you find things) but St Anthony the Great or the Abbot, who spent thirteen years praying and meditating in the north African desert, where the devil fought him by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and the phantoms of women. Goethe gives him patronage over “all four-footed creatures”. St Francis of course preached to the birds, and referred to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”, so he cast his net wide. He now seems to have the four-footed creatures as well and one hopes that this shift in competences was accomplished without any unpleasantness, particularly as Anthony the Abbot had been at it for about a thousand years before the man from Assisi came along.
I’m sure the thing was handled diplomatically and Anthony got something else (laziness I would have plumped for). Really there are quite enough jobs to go round, with patron saints appointed to deal with amputees, archivists, bankers, bomb technicians (Barbara), comedians (Vitus), children learning to walk and children who are late in learning to walk. Sometimes the portfolio is a daunting one and one saint is not enough. Thus Gertrud, Servatus and Ulric are all charged with protection against mice. I pray to each of them at least once a week and I must say I have been kept safe since that evening seven or eight years ago when one of the little blighters walked across the floor less than a metre from my foot in the Paris Latin Quarter restaurant our guide book had recommended. So as not to alarm my companion or spoil her evening I pretended on that occasion to be less affected than I was, but I did not finish my cheese course.