Engraving, circa 1501, a very fine, black Meder a-b impression, with the light horizontal scratches above the mountain at left and on the Saint's shoulder (as called for by Meder in early impressions), printing with dramatic contrasts and clarity, the landscape at upper left displaying exceptional depth and definition, framed
Whilst out hunting, the Roman general Placidus became transfixed by an apparition: an image of the crucified Christ appeared between the antlers of a stag. The beast miraculously spoke God’s words: 'O Placidus, why pursuest thou me?’ Placidus fell from his horse and knelt beside a stream. He immediately converted and was baptised Eustace.
The legend of St Eustace, the patron saint of huntsmen, was described in Jacobus de Varagine’s thirteenth-century collection of saints’ lives, the Golden Legend; it became an immensely popular subject in late medieval art. There were important precursors to Dürer’s interpretation; perhaps most notably, Pisanello’s The Vision of Saint Eustace (circa 1438-42), now in the collection of the National Gallery, London, which the German artist may well have encountered in Verona around five years before this work was engraved. Dürer’s rendition was to become the iconic depiction of the legend, however, not so much because of the contemporary reverence for its subject, but for its exquisite depiction of the natural world. As Panofsky describes:
But the attention of the beholder is held less by the experience of St. Eustace than by the landscape and the animals. Dürer has never approached more closely what may be called an Eyckian quality of scenery. An untold wealth of details, including even a flight of birds circling around the belfry of a fortified castle, and in part visible only through a magnifying glass, is organized into a monumental whole. The utmost solidity of substance and precision of form are mysteriously combined with the greatest softness and richness of tone; the eye feasts on such subtleties as the nuances of different types of foliage and the interior-like half-light of a secluded swannery darkened by trees. The animals, too, are studied from life with an eye to tone and texture.
That Dürer could conjure such nuanced and intricate naturalism in the arduous and then still novel medium of engraving was an astonishing achievement. He indulged every minute detail of the image with uniformly meticulous attention: from the gnarled knots of the twisting trees, to the graceful necks of the diminutive swans and the rugged, undulating textures of the craggy cliffs in the background. The animals are handled equally carefully: bearing a resemblance to illustrations in scientific handbooks, they are most frequently captured in profile, while a fourth dog is shown frontally and a fifth is represented in a more casual pose. (It has been suggested that by depicting the animals from different sides in various postures, Dürer was posing a challenge to the sixteenth-century view that sculpture was superior to flat art due to its capacity for three-dimensional representation). Indeed, the greyhounds in St Eustace are among the most revered—and endlessly copied—elements in all of the artist’s graphic oeuvre; they are singled out for particular appreciation in Vasari’s enthusiastic summation of the engraving as 'amazing, and particularly for the beauty of some dogs in various attitudes, which could not be more perfect.'
Dürer famously rejected many of his works; he spoke of feeling ashamed about a perceived chasm between the idea and its realisation. As Thomas Venatorius wrote in 1540: ‘I remember my fellow townsman, Albrecht Dürer, perhaps the greatest painter of his time, who, when he created protypaor ektypa[images], as they are called by the Greeks, always satisfied those capable of judging; but (as he himself used to say), he remained always unsatisfied with his work as compared with the beauty of the archetypos previously conceived in his mind. What I am writing here, I—along with many other trustworthy and erudite men—have heard him say.’
The artist’s records reveal that he remained proud of St Eustace throughout his life: he presented it to potential buyers on his travels throughout Europe and is known to have sold at least six impressions in the Netherlands in 1521, two decades after cutting the engraving. It may be that Dürer continued to hold this work in high regard as it satisfied his more mature aspirations: the humanist scholar Philip Melanchthon recalled the artist saying that in his youth, he admired pictures that were full of colour and different forms; however, in his later years he turned increasingly to nature, and his primary aim was to grasp her unique, enigmatic, often mystifying character.