Alessandro Magnasco and Antonio Francesco Peruzzini - inv. 251
This work presents similarities with the two Landscapes with Travellers (inv. 249 and 250), and with another painting, always in Poldi Pezzoli Museum, called The Temptations of Saint Anthony Abbot (inv. 252).
In the past, the canvases were attributed to Magnasco, but now, after restoration, only the figures are held to be by him, while the landscapes are considered to be by Antonio Francesco Peruzzini.
Three friars are sitting by a pool of water in the lower part of the picture: they look as though they are praying and their bodies can be made out thanks to the light-coloured tunics that show up in the darkness. Above them, nestling in the trees, two rather disturbing figures are intent on watching the monks. The eyes of one of them shine in the darkness. They look like fauns, but are more probably devils ready to lead the three monks into temptation, as occurs in the most famous and well-represented scene of this type, in which Saint Anthony Abbot is threatened by a swarm of demons and naked women.
Anonymous scenes of daily religious life are very frequent in Magnasco’s work: processions of Capuchins, travelling mendicant friars, monks at prayer, lessons of catechism. In proportion, paintings showing classical scenes of sacred stories or symbolic episodes in the lives of historic personages like Saint Ambrose or Saint Carlo Borromeo (inv. 328) are much fewer.
It is not known exactly what led Magnasco to be such an attentive observer of popular religious life: in fact we do not know whether these paintings were simple representations of reality or whether there was a vein of criticism in them of a superstitious and old-fashioned society. Perhaps, though, his interest in common life stemmed from his patrons, attracted and interested in such a radically different and distant world, rather untamed and therefore fascinating. After all, a hermit, to the eyes of an 18th-century nobleman must have seemed just as unusual and exotic as a gypsy girl, a beggar or an acrobat.