There is an invisible protagonist, always called upon and to whom every person and fact unavoidably refers: God. Each time, St. Anthony is presented as His messenger and a mediator between men and their deeds. Early biographies of Saint Anthony adopt two very basic and even opposite standpoints.
While Vita prima, Víta secunda and Raymundina, present an image of Anthony as very serious and even lacking a miraculous aura during his earthly existence. The Benignitas biography and the Rigaldina, do not limit themselves to recalling the "moral" miracles; but rather they interweave the undertakings and life of this apostle and worker of astounding miracles.
This second approach began in the fourteenth century. From then on a sort of "conspiracy" came about in that all hagiographic compilations concerning St. Anthony tended increasingly towards the thaumaturgical element, until St. Anthony almost disappeared into a radiant aura of miracles. What are the motives for this phenomenon?
1. Often this legendary aura was attributed to events which, originally, did not have miraculous connotations. Examining a documented fact, the encounter between the Saint and Ezzelino was a normal meeting between a popular preacher who was highly esteemed in the Veneto region and a politician who turned a deaf ear to humanitarian and religious reasoning. In the Benignitas biography the meeting is completely retold: the protagonists are enveloped in the supernatural.
2. At other times, older sources attest to the intervention of a supernatural power. Thus, the "miraculous" aspect exists. But it is accentuated, amplified, by the addition of new miraculous components. For example, the Paduan girl, according to the initial account, was cured little by little. The Benignitas, in retelling the account, renders the cure instantaneous and moving.
3. Some exceptional events were recorded, however, several details of these accounts do not tally, showing that they have been handed down from either the oral tradition or are remembered accounts of what was written somewhere else. Later hagiographers gathered such accounts together as if the event was repeated. An example being bilocation, Benignitas relates an event in Montpellier during a ceremony which is not specified, in Rigaldina the event occurred instead in Limoges on Holy Thursday.
4. There is no need to marvel if at times the narration seems to be identical to the accounts of other saints. Since we are dealing more with constructing an image than with "true" history, it is possible that these stories have found their way into the Anthonian legend from elsewhere. One example being: who performed the miracle of the reattached foot, Saint Anthony or Saint Peter the Martyr? A similar story can be read in the miraculous accounts of both saints.
5. There are also cases of artistic dramatisations. It is well-known that first generation Franciscans had to fight against Catharism which denied, amongst other things, the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Thus, this aspect of St. Anthony's apostolate was translated into the form of a sacred drama and concentrated into a single, intense and moving scene: the mule which kneels before the consecrated Host.
6. A parallel phenomenon is the translation of Biblical passages into figurative/narrative forms. "Where you keep your treasure, there too is your heart", as Christ said. The saying comes true to the letter in the miracle of the usurer, whose heart could not be found in his chest, but instead was amongst the precious items and his money locked in his treasure chest.
The narration of miracles is thus a very complex literary genre. Each of the numerous miracles attributed by hagiographers to Anthony's intercession, whether carried out whilst alive, or once he had passed away, require detailed study.
From a literary point of view, these tales are not excellent literature. There are often dull pages, thick with pomposity, unimaginative clichés, without a hint of poetry, and completely lacking in psychological insight into the personality of St. Anthony, or those unfortunate individuals who ask for his help. A suffocating spiritual narrow-mindedness can be noted more than once, along with the dominance of a self-centred religiosity, however earnest this may be. But even such opaque texts inspired painters and sculptors to high levels of spirituality. Raw material in the hands of Giotto, Donatello, Titian, El Greco, Murillo, Tiepolo, Goya... (St. Anthony is very lucky in art), was transformed into high drama, into ecstasy, into exceptional expressions of liberation and of pain, of reproach and of praise. Art is capable of extracting life even from death, and the sublime from mediocrity.
These are the miracles befitting a travelling preacher, they reveal the burning desire to save souls. He exists exclusively as a living mediator between Christ and the children of God dispersed throughout history, he is a trait d'union between the Redeemer and the redeemed.
The Christians of his day, both in Italy and in France, were believers who were only very crudely introduced into the faith in terms of understanding its doctrine and ethics. Theirs was a traditional religion, which needs to be renewed and deepened in its terms of revelation, defending it against the snares of heresy and prevailing vices. This is the reason for the miracles which support the Christ's true presence in the Eucharist (miracle of the mule), or which underline the authority of his teaching, (for example: the poisoned food, preaching to the fish), or which renew his battle against usury (the macabre tale of the heartless usurer).
On other occasions we see St. Anthony concerned with providing relief to the material suffering of the people, and blocking the way to hateful abuse at the hands of governments (for example: the stormy meeting with Ezzelino, the tale of the twelve thieves, the pious woman of Provence). Notable artists have been inspired by other miraculous events, the new born who speaks, the jealous husband, the reattached foot, which portray Anthony as the defender of family harmony. The importance of the Sacrament of Confession is emphasised, and many miracles are linked to this theme, forming part of the Anthonian saga.
Although he abandoned his family of birth and he left the Augustinian Order, he was a loving son and brother, close to both his family and friends (transferred from Padua to Lisbon, his apparition to Abbot Thomas). Deeper still was his attachment to his minor confreres. He took on the burden of their troubles, he helped avoid possible disorder in the monastery and cloistered life, foiled diabolical turbulence which put meditation at risk, and took care of the nutritional needs of his monastery etc. (for example: the young Noviciate of Limoges, the diabolical phantasmagoria, bilocation in Montpellier, the maid who went to gather vegetables under the rain).
Thus, these episodes help to reconstruct the historical figure of Saint Anthony, they disclose his moral constitution, his feelings of evangelical solidarity, the worries of a teacher of the faith and a guarantor of the authenticity of consecrated life. The most touching miracle however, which analyses in depth the Saint's soul, is the apparition of the Baby Jesus. Saint Anthony glows here in ecstasy, absorbed in divine intimacy, by deep and sweetly emotional faith, with transports of joy and the features of someone who is deeply in love.
It is common to say that medical specialists at Lourdes, "declare" the truth of a certain miracle. This expression is not exact, and we need to be careful. The declaring of miracles does not form part of a doctor's job. His task is to declare that a recovery, according to the current state of medical research, is inexplicable. It is possible that in the future, medical science will be able to solve the mystery.
In so far as a miracle is concerned, only a believer can discern it, in a aura of faith. This is another very different type of knowledge, beyond experimental science. We must cultivate an attitude of adoring silence, which enable us to be transparent to that interior light, thanks to which we can discern a divine presence: "You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and have revealed them to infants" (Lk 10,21).
St. Anthony continues to give two types of grace. Above all, through the clear signs of Providence, St. Anthony directs the religious thought of many people towards Christ, he supports wavering faith during the ups and downs of life, guiding us towards the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, surprising whoever is distant or disinterested in God with the interior fascination of conversion. For many Christians, St Anthony represents perhaps the only concrete point of reference, which can foster and develop a relationship with God in the midst of the turmoil of life.
Secondly, St. Anthony extends God's heart into the world, giving faith and hope. Family or work problems, the straying of children or illnesses: there are many occasions in life when men feel powerless. The Saint, so attentive in life to the needs of the family, continues to be God's concrete and favoured mediator in the Church.
"We children must ask our God for something. Everything that exists in this is nothing, compared to our love for God. We must therefore ask to love God, sustaining Him in His weakest and sickest members, feeding Him in the poor and needy. If we ask for Love, then, the same Father, who is Love, will give us what He is: Love!" (From the Sermones, vol. I, pp. 333-334).