According to his biographer, the rigorous asceticism practised by St Anthony in the Egyptian desert allowed him to levitate in the air, where he was attacked by devils trying to beat him to the ground. The imaginative power with which Schongauer interpreted their assault made this engraving famous throughout Europe. At least seven copies of the plate survive, one by Master FVB. Michelangelo as a boy was said to have copied it in colour, and Dürer re-used the figure of the devil with a club above Anthony in one of his greatest engravings, Knight, Death and the Devil.
Schongauer's (1435-1491) interpretation however, preserves some plausibility. His grotesque devils are illustrated with mixing body parts from different domains of the animal kingdom. Birds, insects, fish, a lizard and a dog contribute wings, horns, fur, scales, beaks and claws to make up fiends who act with human malice. A generation later their example must have nourished the fantastic inventions of Hieronymous Bosch.
Schongauer engraved this print in Colmar, and in about 1512, Antonite monks at the hospital in nearby Isenheim commissioned their great altarpiece of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald (Colmar, Musée d'Unterlinden) which includes a panel of the same scene. When suffering great pain, the sick in the hospital could be tempted to lose their faith in a loving God. The serenity of St Anthony in the face of torment by demons was a model of how to respond to such distress.