This very well preserved, minutely-detailed panel was probably executed in the first-quarter of the 16th century and is a distinctly Flemish interpretation of the print that Albrecht Dürer referred to as Eustachius. Saint Eustace was an officer named as Placidus in
Trajan's army who was out hunting when he was confronted by a white
stag with a crucifix between his antlers. The voice of Christ spoke to him, whereupon Eustace fell from his horse, and knelt before this
apparition in full acceptance of Christianity (J. de Voragine, The
Golden Legend, II, pp. 266-71). Saint Eustace became the patron saint of hunters, furriers and foresters, venerated particularly in Northern Europe from the 12th century.
Dürer's print of Saint Eustace was made just after 1500, providing a terminus ante quem for this Flemish rendition. It was
during that time, from 1495-1509, that Dürer, who had returned to
Nuremberg after travelling in Italy, established himself as the
pre-eminent print-maker of his generation, producing many of his
masterpieces, including The Apocalypse (1498); Four Witches
(1497); Nemesis (1501-2), and The Fall of Man (1504).
Impressions of Saint Eustace were still in circulation in 1520/1, when Dürer noted in his diary that he gave them as gifts during his trip to the Low Countries. His reception there was rapturous and he was even given a dinner in his honour by the painters' guild of St. Luke in Antwerp. Dürer's influence was to prove to be one of the decisive factors in Netherlandish art over successive generations, largely through the medium of his printed oeuvre, as the present painting bears elegant testimony.
Fundamental to the understanding of this panel is the existence of
another almost identical version in the collection of the Nelson-
Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (inv. no. 31-59), catalogued by
Burton L. Dunbar in his excellent recent volume of German and
Netherlandish Paintings 1450-1600, Kansas City, 2005, no. 12, pp.
169-78. We are especially grateful to Professor Fritz Koreny for noting the Kansas panel, which measures 44 x 31.6 cm., and which, together with the present panel, provides a fascinating insight into
the reception and repetition of Dürer's prints.
Dendrochronological analysis shows that the Nelson-Atkins painting is
on an oak panel felled between 1479-81 from the Baltic region, which
had regular and close trade links with the Southern Netherlands. The
present panel, also of oak and almost certainly also from the Baltic,
is evidently stylistically very close to the Nelson-Atkins painting,
and it would appear that both were produced in the same workshop, which must have owned an impression of Dürer's print that would have been used as a pattern, tracing the exact shapes onto the panel. The print however, as Burton Dunbar notes, was smaller that the Kansas picture, as well as the present panel, and the artist consequently had to extend the composition around the edges, heightening the trees at the upper edge and expanding the sideways spacing of the tree trunk on the right.
One of the main differences between the print and both panels is in the rendition of the face of Saint Eustace, who takes on the blond features of a different man, possibly a specific donor. The striking red tunic is also quite different from the print and is distinctly Netherlandish in character. The triangular group of hounds in the foreground remain very much the same as in the print, as does the fourth dog, a greyhound, who looks up at St. Eustace's mount, while the fifth hound in the print is swapped into a slightly incongruous Brussels griffon (like that found in Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Marriage Portrait; London, National Gallery); possibly again evidence of the donor's interests and wishes. The practical hunting cap of Dürer's Saint
Eustace disappears in the present panel, where St. Eustace is
bare-headed, whilst in the Kansas City panel he is crowned by a halo.
Even the arrangement of the perspective is distinctively Flemish, with ochre and greens in the foreground, changing to greens and blues in the middle to far distance. The careful stippling of the foliage is similarly characteristic, as is the minute attention to the
tapestry-like details, such as each blade of grass, the dandelions and the beautifully depicted wild strawberries in the foreground. Whilst the fantastical, turreted castle in the distance follows the print, the gabled, cream-coloured farmhouse in the middle-distance has been added and is particularly Flemish in feel. One more painting based on Dürer's print is known in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome, but
unlike the aforementioned panels, it is quite different in effect, and remains firmly rooted in the German tradition.
Dürer wrote in his diary entry of 5 May 1521 that he had witnessed
the wedding of Joachim Patinir, the 'good landscape painter', later
recording how he traded his prints for the use of Patinir's colours and apprentice. It is not surprising therefore that the Kansas City panel had historically been associated with the work of Patinir. More recently, comparisons have been made with Jan Mostaert. What remains
quite clear however is that the artist of the present panel would have known the work of artists such as Patinir, whose influence had spread rapidly in Antwerp and Bruges, where he may even have worked in the studio of Gerard David before 1515.