Pigs in Paradise: A Note on Paradiso 29

David Bowe (University College Cork)

Dante Notes / March 24, 2020     

When Beatrice concludes her evisceration of foolish preachers who value buffoonish performances over the content of their sermons —“Non disse Cristo al suo primo convento: | ‘Andate, e predicate al mondo ciance’” (Par. 29, 109-10)—, she turns her critical gaze on those pardoners who trade in indulgences.

          “Ma tale uccel nel becchetto s’annida,
che se 'l vulgo il vedesse, vederebbe
la perdonanza di ch'el si confida.” (Par. 29, 118-20)

This critique is aimed particularly at the Hospitallers of St. Anthony— Antonines for short—and they are introduced in an image that requires careful reconsideration:

          “Di questo ingrassa il porco sant’ Antonio,
e altri assai che sono ancor più porci
pagando di moneta sanza conio.” (Par. 29, 124-6)

These lines have posed a challenge for exegetes: with their somewhat knotty syntax and interwoven points of reference, but they can be understood as follows: On this [income from indulgences] St. Anthony fattens his pig [the Antonines], and many others who are still more piggish, paying them with unstamped coin.[1]

The nature of the pigs and their relation to St. Anthony, however, have largely been met with critical consensus, but this consensus requires reevaluation. In this note I will specifically examine the nature of Anthony’s pig in the hagiographic and iconographic tradition, comparing this tradition with the text of and commentaries on the Commedia. The goal of this comparison is to highlight a commonplace misrepresentation of Anthony’s pig within the commentary tradition, identify the source of this misidentification, and thus offer a clarifying gloss on this particular aspect of Beatrice’s critique of the Hospitallers.

The bare facts are this: the iconography of St. Anthony the Abbot frequently includes a pig or hog. The order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony kept pigs, which roamed freely in towns and were fed by pious townsfolk and also with the proceeds of alms given to the order. These pigs were held sacrosanct by many, and Sacchetti, in Novella 110, writes about the fate of a gluttonous man who attempts to kill a pair of these holy swine to satisfy his appetite. The pigs trample their would-be butcher, leaving him close to death, and Sacchetti’s moral is this: “Santo Antonio fece questo miracolo, e però dice: ‘Scherza cofanti e lascia stare i santi’”.[2]

Of the many modern commentaries surveyed, those that gloss the pig in Anthony’s iconography offer variations on a theme of which Chiavacci Leonardi’s gloss is representative: “Sant’ Antonio abate […] era raffigurato con un porco ai piedi, simbolo del diavolo tentatore da lui più volte sconfitto; per questo era – ed è tuttora-- considerato il protettore degli animali domestici”.[3] In other words, they state simply that the pig represents one of the demons sent to tempt Anthony, here particularly referring to the temptations of gluttony for the famously fasting saint. Those ‘more swinish’ others are quite possibly the concubines or other hangers on reputedly supported by the brothers of the Antonine order using the alms and indulgences they solicited.[4] As we will see, however, neither Anthony’s early iconography, nor his vitae support this interpretation. Sometimes a pig is just a pig.

How, then, and when does the pig-demon become a common part of the gloss for the porco in Dante’s invective terzina? In short, it seems like a case of mistaken identity. The idea that the pig is a tempting demon only makes its first appearance in the commentary tradition in the late-eighteenth century, when Baldassare Lombardi claims:

Siccome sant'Antonio Abate si scolpisce e dipinge col porco ai piedi [in simbolo del demonio da lui vinto [Molan. de Picturis lib. 3 c. 5], è probabile, e pare che 'l poeta nostro lo accenni, che da qualche impostore si questuasse per ingrassare il porco di s. Antonio.[5]

Lombardi cites Johannes Molanus’ 1570 De Picturis et Imaginibus Sacris as his authority here, but there is no mention of the pig-demon in Johannes’ treatment of depictions of Anthony.[6] Instead, Molanus refers to Anthony’s role in warding off disease from livestock, from which the pig of St. Anthony gets its name (“quem nominant sancti Antonij porcum”). Lombardi may have had a later, particularly Flemish, tradition in mind, in which the occasional demonic pig (or porcine demon) does appear in representations of the Temptation of St. Anthony.[7] Even given this tradition, the vast majority of images of Anthony do not show him skewering, trampling, or in conflict with the pig, as we would expect of a conquered or tempting demon, but merely standing with it.[8] This more positive trend reflects a strong popular tradition of securing Anthony’s blessing on livestock, and pigs especially.

Iterations of this tradition are still evident in various contexts. In the Spanish town of La Alberca a pig has free run of the city until it is blessed and raffled for slaughter on the feast day of St. Anthony, 17 January. There is also a continued practice of public animal blessings on Anthony’s feast day (Lombardy is home to notable present-day examples of this practice). The association of Anthony with the pig may well be a retroactive one, born of the Hospitallers’ pig husbandry, which supplied the order both with food for themselves and their patients, as well as with lard, a key medicinal ingredient used in the treatment of St. Anthony’s Fire, among other conditions.[9] There is also the popular tradition that Anthony was a swineherd, as well as a Sardinian folktale—SantAntonio dà il fuoco agli uomini—in which Anthony serves as a Prometheus-figure who retrieves fire from hell and (in Italo Calvino’s charming version, at least) his pig becomes a veritable hero of the tale, kicking down the doors to the underworld.[10]

While accounts of the pig as demon appear in some secondary texts on the iconography of Anthony (without reference to any specific vitae or legends), neither the 4th-century Vita S. Antoni, attributed to Athanasius, nor the Legenda Aurea, assembled by Jacobus de Voragine in the latter half of the thirteenth century contain any mention of the pig-demon. In the Legenda we hear that Anthony suffered innumerable assaults by (unspecified) demons—“Vir innumerabilia daemonum tentamenta sustinuit”, while the devil takes various forms—from a small boy, to a gigantic figure swatting at ascending souls—but never a pig.[11] In the founding fourth-century Vita, meanwhile, pigs are notably absent from the extended list of animal forms adopted by the devil’s minions:

And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. (Vita S. Antoni, 9)[12]

Swine are only mentioned when the author declares the devil’s impotence in trying to tempt Anthony, as he lacks power even over swine. This argument is made with reference to Matthew 8.31, in which demons request Christ’s permission to possess a herd of pigs:

And he has not the power over swine, for as it is written in the Gospel, they besought the Lord, saying, “Let us enter the swine.” But if they had power not even against swine, much less have they any over men formed in the image of God. (Vita S. Antoni, 29)

The pigs in the Gospel are subsequently possessed, but only after Jesus allows the demons to go into the swine (“Et ait illis: ‘Ite’” Matthew 8.32). In Athenasius’ gloss of this verse, the swine are not indicative of something diabolical, but rather emphatically indicative of the power of God’s creation in the face of demonic onslaughts.

This history does not get pigs entirely off the hook, however. Pigs are associated with filth (porcus/sporcus in Isidore), while boars are ferocious and even representative of the devil himself in the bestiary tradition.[13] Dante, meanwhile, uses various swine as analogies for damned souls and one boar-ish devil in the Inferno, though rarely with direct connection to a particular vice.[14] The closest he does comes to tying a pig to a particular sin is the possible wordplay on Ciacco’s name in canto 6: “Ciacco dicono alquanti, che è nome di porco”.[15] The pig as sign of bestial sin also comes to the fore in the earliest commentaries through to the sixteenth century, with glosses drawing together implications of gluttony, avarice, and lust.

The Chiose Vernon, tentatively dated to the end of the fourteenth century, note “queste favole e ghiottornie che vanno predicando i frati di santo Antonio”,[16] while Bevenuto da Imola’s commentary, composed between 1375 and 1380, emphasizes the pig’ lustful implications: “quia porcus nutritur et datur istis porcis, scilicet, meretrices” [thus the pigs are fed, and they are given to these other pigs, which is to say, prostitutes].[17] Alessandro Vellutello, a century and a half later, synthesizes these comments: “tranno dal troppo credulo et ignorante vulgo danari et altre cose, che tutto fa per loro, di che essi s'ingrassano, e le concubine loro ch'è ancor peggio”.[18] In sum, these commentaries offer up the pig as a signifier of various combinations of the threefold sin of cupidity—excessive desire for lesser goods—previously embodied in the hag-siren of Purgatorio 19, and purged on the final three terraces of that second realm (Purg. 19.58-60)

What, then, are we to make of Anthony’s pig in Paradiso 29?

Given the absence of porcine demons from both the major vitae of St. Anthony and the early commentaries to the Commedia, it seems less and less likely that Beatrice is implying that the Antonines now succumb to the temptations of a specific pig-demon once resisted by the saint himself. A more sustainable reading is that Beatrice’s speech is exploiting the associative slippage of the pig to show how the order has become corrupt. The positive iconographical attribute of the Hospitallers’ patron—the pig—has been perverted by the actions of the Antonines themselves into an allegory of the sins of their order. Anthony’s pig is not demonic, but this does not mean his Hospitallers are not swinish.

Whichever way we slice it, these words are doubly cutting for the Antonines. They become parodies both of their patron saint and of the good preacher: bloated, lascivious salesmen flogging dodgy indulgences to the credulous masses. This is hammered home in Beatrice’s final words on the matter: “pagando di moneta sanza conio”. Taken together with lines 118-120 “Ma tale uccel nel becchetto s’annida, | che se ’l vulgo il vedesse, vederebbe | la perdonanza di ch’el si confida”, it is made clear that we are dealing with, and the Antonines are dealing in worthless, potentially damning pardons. This practice of hustling for donations is later satirized by Boccaccio in frate Cipolla’s preaching and his not so subtle reminder that his audience’s “usanza è di mandare ogni anno a’ poveri del baron messer Santo Antonio del vostro grano e delle vostre biade, chi poco e chi assai, secondo il podere e la divozion sua,” in return for Anthony’s oversight of their livestock, pigs, of course, included (Decameron, VI.10, 9).[19] Beatrice’s invective also offers something of a foretaste of Chaucer’s lascivious Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales, as well as an echo of Boniface VIII’s empty absolution of Guido da Montefeltro, narrated in Inferno 27. Indeed, commentators from Lombardi onward go as far as to classify the Hospitallers of St. Anthony as Simoniacs, deserving of a place in the 3rd bolgia of the 8th circle of hell, along with that same Boniface. On this point I have no argument with Lombardi’s assessment.

I acknowledge now, with Beatrice, that “siam digressi assai” (Par. 29.127), and conclude with the observation that, in Dante’s account, the Hospitallers of St. Anthony needed no demon to lead them into sin, but merely came to resemble their porcine charges a little too closely.


This research is supported by an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship.

[1] Parsing the lines in this way favours a reading of “ingrassa” as transitive, with Anthony as subject and both his pig and the “altri” as objects of the verb. A possible rendering of line 124 as “di questo s'ingrassa il porco di sant'Antonio” is noted in a number of commentaries as well as in Anselmo Lentini, “Antonio, santo”, in Enciclopedia Dantesca, Umberto Bosco ed., 6 vols (Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1970-78), v, pp. 475-6, also available at <http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/> (henceforth ED). This alternative reading, while possible, would require “altri assai” in line 125 to be an instance of the plural variant common in spoken vernacular (Lentini, “Antonio, santo”, in ED). Chiavacci Leonardi notes that even this explanation doesn’t truly account for the emphatic “assai” and that the intransitive reading of “ingrassa” is rendered even more unlikely when line 126’s “pagando moneta” is taken into consideration. Cfr. Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi's commentary to Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, 3 vols (Milan: Mondadori, 1991-1997).

[2] These free-roaming urban swine are also painted in a positive (if still somewhat disruptive) light in Novella 75: one of the pigs barrels down the street and knocks Giotto to the ground. Rather than cursing his assailant, the artist declares: “‘O non hanno ‘e ragione? ché ho guadagnato a mie’ dí con le setole loro migliaia di lire, e mai non diedi loro una scodella di broda.’” Franco Sacchetti, Il Trecentonovelle, Emilio Faccioli, ed., (Turin: Einaudi, 1970).

[3] Chiavacci Leonardi, La Divina Commedia. For similar readings, see Nicola Fosca, The Dartmouth Dante Project (DDP) (2003-2015) <https://dante.dartmouth.edu> [accessed 4 January 2020], Robert Hollander’s commentary to Paradiso (New York: Anchor, 2007), the latter with reference to The Rev. H.F. Tozer, An English Commentary on Dante's “Divina Commedia” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901). Tozer’s reference for the pig as demon is Anna Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, 2 vols (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848). Jameson’s account is, however, devoid of references for this interpretation: “I have read somewhere that the hog is given to St. Anthony because he had been a swineherd and cured the diseases of swine. This is quite a mistake. The hog was the representative of the demon of sensuality and gluttony, which Anthony is supposed to have vanquished by exercises of piety and by divine aid,” Sacred and Legendary Art, ii, p. 380. This reading of the pig as demon, while commonplace in commentaries, is met with caution by Lentini, “Antonio, santo”.

[4] Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 723; Lentini, ‘Antonio, santo’; Tozer, An English Commentary.

[5] Baldassare Lombardi, La Divina Commedia, novamente corretta, spiegata e difesa da F.B.L.M.C [Fra Baldassare Lombardi, minore conventuale] (Roma: A. Fulgoni, 1791-92, DDP, <https://dante.dartmouth.edu> [accessed 10 November 2019].

[6] Johannes Molanus, De Picturis et Imaginibus Sacris (Leuven: Hieronymus Welle, 1579), fol. 110v-111r. Lombardi could have found something closer to corroboration in Theophilus Raynaudus, In Symbolicam S. Antonii magni Imaginem commentatio (Ghent: Bernard de Kerchove, 1659), who interprets the pig as either symbolic of Anthony feeding the poor, or of the porcine men he subdued (namely non-Christians, heretics, and sensual sinners) (p. 31-34), though demons remain absent from this account, too. See also the chapter, “Much Ado About Bacon”, in Sarah Gordon, Culinary Comedy in Medieval French Literature (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2007), pp. 97-139, for an overview of pigs, sin, and clergy in medieval sources.

[7] See, for example, Lucas van Leyden’s, The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1530).

[8] An extensive gallery of representations can be found in the Porkopolis online gallery <https://www.porkopolis.org/art-museum/exhibitions/st-anthonys-swine/> [accessed 5 January 2020).

[9] Carlo Gelmetti, Il fuoco di Sant’Antonio: Storia, tradizione e medicina (Milan: Springer-Verlag, 2007), p. 8, David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 19-20.

[10] Italo Calvino, Fiabe Italiane, 2 vols (Milan: Mondadori, 1981), ii, pp. 673-6.

[11] Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea vulgo historia lombardica dicta, Theodor Grässe, ed., 2nd edn. (Leipzig: Libreria Arnoldiana, 1850), pp. 104-107, via archive.org <https://archive.org/details/legendaaureavulg00jacouoft> [accessed 17 December 2020] and in English translation as The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, William Granger Ryan, trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), Vol. i, pp. 93-6.

[12] Athanasius of Alexandria, Life of St. Anthony of Egypt, David Brakke, trans., in Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology, Thomas Head, ed., (New York; London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 1-30.

[13] For Isidore on Sus [swine] and Aper [boar], see Wallace M. Lindsay ed., Isidori Hispalensis episcopi Etymologiarum sive originum libri (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1911), with revisions by Bill Thayer, XII, 1, 25 and 27 <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Isidore/home.html> [accessed 11 December 2019]. A translation is available in The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and Oliver Berghof trans., with the collaboration of Muriel Hall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For the boar as the devil, see Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764, fols. 38v-39r.

[14] Inf. 8.50, 13.113, 22.56, 30.27.

[15] Francesco da Buti, Commento di Francesco da Buti sopra La Divina Commedia di Dante Allighieri, Crescentino Giannini, ed., (Pisa: Fratelli Nistri, 1858-62), echoed by Trifon Gabriele, Annotationi nel Dante fatte con M. Trifon Gabriele in Bassano, Lino Pertile, ed. (Bologna: Commissione per i testi di lingua, 1993), both accessed via DDP, <https://dante.dartmouth.edu> [accessed 16 December 2019].

[16] Chiose sopra Dante, testo inedito ora per la prima volta pubblicato, G. Lord Vernon, ed,. (Florence: Piatti, 1846).

[17] Benvenuto da Imola, Benevenuti de Rambaldis de Imola Comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comoediam, nunc primum integre in lucem editum sumptibus Guilielmi Warren Vernon, Jacobo Philippo Lacaita, ed., (Florence: G. Barbèra, 1887).

[18] Alessandro Vellutello commentary to Purgatorio XI-Paradiso XXXIII (Venezia: F. Marcolini, 1544), in I commenti danteschi dei secoli XIV, XV e XVI, Paolo Procaccioli, dir., Francesca Ferrario, ed., (Lexis Progetti Editoriali: 1999), via DDP <https://dante.dartmouth.edu> [accessed 16 December 2019].

[19] The narrative and Cipolla’s preaching are also laced with porcine allusion: the friar’s servant Guccio, called Porco by some (VI.10, 9); the suggestive “privilegi del Porcellana” (VI.10, 37); and the pigs dressed in their own entrails (VI.10, 40).