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sand and small wave

Saint Anthony’s Fish Sermon

Plough Music Series

Colin Fields


The month of June includes the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua (1195-1231), a Franciscan friar famous for his eloquent preaching. One story tells how, disgusted by the obduracy of his listeners, Saint Anthony went to the mouth of the Marecchia river and called the fish, who all swam to the surface and formed ranks to hear his sermon. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis includes this account of his message:

My brothers the fishes, you are bound, as much as is in your power, to return thanks to your Creator, who has given you so noble an element for your dwelling; for you have at your choice both sweet water and salt; you have many places of refuge from the tempest; you have likewise a pure and transparent element for your nourishment. God, your bountiful and kind Creator, when he made you, ordered you to increase and multiply, and gave you his blessing. In the universal deluge, all other creatures perished; you alone did God preserve from all harm.

At these words the fish began to open their mouths, and bow their heads, endeavoring as much as was in their power to express their reverence and show forth their praise.

The retelling of this story by seventeenth century Augustinian priest Abraham a Sancta Clara in a pleasing poem which ends with its own twist on the result of Saint Anthony’s sermon (Padre Abraham was known for his earthy wit) was set to music by Gustav Mahler and published in his song collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

This 1967 performance by Walter Berry (conducted by Leonard Bernstein) is appropriately lighthearted.

Antonius zur Predigt
Die Kirche findt ledig.
Er geht zu den Flüssen
und predigt den Fischen;

Sie schlagen mit den Schwänzen,
Im Sonnenschein glänzen.

Die Karpfen mit Rogen
Sind allhier gezogen,
Haben d'Mäuler aufrissen,
Sich Zuhörens beflissen;

Kein Predigt niemalen
Den Karpfen so g'fallen.

Spitzgoschete Hechte,
Die immerzu fechten,
Sind eilend herschwommen,
Zu hören den Frommen;

Kein Predigt niemalen
Den Hechten so g'fallen.

Auch jene Phantasten,
Die immerzu fasten;
Die Stockfisch ich meine,
Zur Predigt erscheinen;

Kein Predigt niemalen
Den Stockfisch so g'fallen.

Gut Aale und Hausen,
Die vornehme schmausen,
Die selbst sich bequemen,
Die Predigt vernehmen:

Kein Predigt niemalen
den Aalen so g'fallen.

Auch Krebse, Schildkroten,
Sonst langsame Boten,
Steigen eilig vom Grund,
Zu hören diesen Mund:

Kein Predigt niemalen
den Krebsen so g'fallen.

Fisch große, Fisch kleine,
Vornehm und gemeine,
Erheben die Köpfe
Wie verständge Geschöpfe:

Auf Gottes Begehren
Die Predigt anhören.

Die Predigt geendet,
Ein jeder sich wendet,
Die Hechte bleiben Diebe,
Die Aale viel lieben.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.

Die Krebs gehn zurücke,
Die Stockfisch bleiben dicke,
Die Karpfen viel fressen,
die Predigt vergessen.

Die Predigt hat g'fallen.
Sie bleiben wie alle.

St. Anthony arrives for his sermon
and finds the church empty.
He goes to the rivers
to preach to the fishes;

They flick their tails,
which glisten in the sunshine.

The carp with roe
have all come here,
their mouths wide open,
listening attentively.

No sermon ever
pleased the carp so.

Sharp-mouthed pike
that fight continously
have come here, swimming hurriedly
to hear this pious one;

No sermon ever
pleased the pike so.

Also, those fantastic creatures
that are always fasting -
the stockfish, I mean -
they also appeared for the sermon;

No sermon ever
pleased the stockfish so.

Good eels and sturgens,
that banquet so elegantly -
even they took the trouble
to hear the sermon:

No sermon ever
pleased the eels so.

Crabs too, and turtles,
usually such slowpokes,
rise quickly from the bottom,
to hear this voice.

No sermon ever
pleased the crabs so.

Big fish, little fish,
noble fish, common fish,
all lift their heads
like sentient creatures:

At God's behest
they listen to the sermon.

The sermon having ended,
each turns himself around;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.

The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

The crabs still walk backwards,
the stockfish stay rotund,
the carps still gorge themselves:
the sermon is forgotten.

The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

Stanthony Arnold Böcklin, 1892
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