Why is Saint Anthony depicted holding the Child Jesus?
There are about three Saints popularly depicted holding the Child Jesus. The Blessed Virgin Mary, because she’s his mother. St Joseph, because he was his foster father and St Anthony for his unique mystical experience during his life.
The tradition of depicting him this way honors said mystical experience St Anthony had, which was witnessed by someone who offered him a place to stay for the night.
In the book The Life of Saint Anthony, one version of the story reads:
While traveling through Limoges a pious benefactor gave [St. Anthony] lodging, and … assigned him a room separated from the others. It was night when the owner, either by chance or on purpose, passed near the room of the Saint, and he observed that rays of unusual light came through the cracks of the door. He was curious to know the reason of that light, and approached the door very slowly. He saw Anthony kneeling, as if in ecstasy, and, full of wonder, admiring and caressing a loving child of rare beauty, who was tenderly embracing the Saint. Then the man knew, from the affectionate conversation, and from the superhuman beauty, that it was Jesus Christ who, under the appearance of a loving child, was pleased to visit His faithful servant and fill him with His ineffable consolation.
In other depictions of this encounter, the Child caressed the Saint full of love for him. This image probably points to the Saint’s childlike simplicity and faith. He was known for his humility, his moving sermons, and his burning love for the poor. He was so known throughout the Church as a holy man that he was canonized just months after death.
When he was at death’s door, the friars noticed he was looking at something attentively, and when they asked, he responded, “I see my Lord.” Shortly after this, he passed away at only 36 years old. According to some accounts, even though the friars kept his death secrets, little children immediately started running around the streets calling out, “The Saint is dead, Friar Anthony is dead.” And Church bells rang all over the place by themselves.