The Vision of Saint Eustace by Pisanello, c. 1438-1442
As the French story of the 13th century tells it, Saint Eustace was a Roman soldier of the second century A.D., originally named Placidus, who was enthusiastically participating in a Roman hunting party. He sighted a stag and broke away from his party to follow the deer's trail. Suddenly, the stag stopped and turned 180 degrees around to face his hunter, and Saint Eustace then saw that between the stag's antlers was the image of Christ on the cross. At that moment, Placidus heard God speak, telling him that he must be baptized in the Christian faith. Placidus immediately went and did so, taking Eustace as his Christian name. His wife and two sons were baptized with him.
Recently I saw a stag race across our street and disappear into a wooded area behind a neighboring row of houses. An hour later I was with my collie dog on a walk that took me into that area and was stunned to turn a corner and see standing about 15 feet away the stag, very much taller than I, looking directly at me. I had interrupted his grazing in a back yard. He seemed to be asking me, "You're not coming closer, are you?" but not as a threat and certainly not in fear. My answer was "No, I am not," and I turned myself and my dog back to the path we had come from. Even in this prosaic encounter, the stag had a stature, beauty, and dignity that gave him an other-worldly aura and authority.
Pisanello paints Saint Eustace's encounter with the stag amidst a woodland filled with flora and fauna, reminiscent of the all-encompassing mille-fleurs and fauna of medieval tapestries--a medieval sensibility in which the natural world symbolized and conveyed God's messages to those made in His image. Many of Pisanello's most accomplished works have been destroyed, but surviving are detailed watercolor sketches of ducks and birds and larger mammals--evidence of the artist's keen dedication to capturing the wonders of the natural world. In the wooded background of The Vision of Saint Eustace, now darkened by age and damage, we see a pelican, ducks, does, fawns, other stags, rabbits, hunting dogs, a blue jay, a bear, a heron and baby heron, and a squirrel in a forest strewn with tiny flowers--purple and white violets (the flower of humility), bluets, and perhaps Stars of Bethlehem.
The stag appears with a visual message, bearing Christ on the cross in his antlers. The deer or stag as messenger was a recurring theme of the early Middle Ages, when the great conversions to Christianity--as foreshadowed by the conversion of Saint Eustace in the second century--were accomplished in the regions of what is now Western Europe, Ireland, and the British Isles. The stag seems designed to the role of God's messenger by virtue of the magnificence of his antlers--akin to the beauty and power of an angel's wings. His antlers point upward. The image of the stag points to the miracle of both the awesome power and loving and noble gentleness of our Lord, whose birth we celebrate today.