Pisanello, Vision of St Eustace 1438–42
London, National Gallery
According to legend, a Roman general, while out hunting near Tivoli came across a stag with a crucifix growing between its antlers. The general was instantly converted to Christianity and when he was baptised he took the name of Eustachius. He became a martyr when he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and was consequently roasted to death with his unfortunate family inside a brass bull. He subsequently became a patron of hunters.
It is of course a mistake to see the advent of the early Italian Renaissance as an all-pervasive movement which changed the way artists worked overnight. In fact great painters such as Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello were working in cities where interest in ‘medieval’, Arthurian chivalry existed at the same time as humanism was sweeping all before it in the Medici court in Florence. Indeed, it has been pointed out that, taking Italy as a whole, the figure of Lancelot was just as influential at this time as was Plato.
Pisanello is often described as working in the International Gothic style — this label being shorthand for the widespread practice of many artists in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century of focusing on the naturalistic representation of, for example, the animals, plants and costume within a painting while remaining unconcerned with the spatial relationship between these elements in the composition as a whole. Realism was confined to detail, naturalism did not extend to the representation of space or volume; the use of extravagant materials underlined the refined and courtly nature of those who commissioned these works. If one wanted an exemplar of this style then The Vision of Saint Eustace has all the right qualifications.
Untroubled by the exigencies of perspective (unlike his contemporaries in Tuscany), Pisanello instead creates a beautifully decorative piece. The meeting between Saint Eustace and the stag takes place in a dark forest. But they are certainly not alone. The forest teems with beasts and birds each one represented with great charm — one of the hounds can be seen sniffing around a greyhound — another greyhound has launched itself in pursuit of a rabbit or hare.
In his lifetime, Pisanello was famous not only as a painter but also as a designer of medals. The particular type of personal commemorative medal in which he specialised (almost always showing the sitter in profile) seems to have been invented by him. And in this picture we can see that the artist has favoured the use of profiles in the depiction of almost all of his menagerie as well as St Eustace.
But the detail which perhaps give most pleasure is the sumptuously decorated harnesses and accoutrements of St Eustace’s horse. Pisanello has built up each stud and fastening using some form of plaster or gesso so that it stands out from the panel in 3D. He has then finished each stud with gold leaf. So here naturalistic detail and lavish decoration find a home together in the work of an innovative and original artist.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1448 Rogier van der Weyden: Last Judgment Altarpiece, Beaune, Hotel-Dieu
1450 Stefan Lochner: Virgin of the Rose Bower, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum
1451 Piero della Francesca: Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta, Paris, Musée du Louvre