The largest of all Dürer's engravings, Saint Eustace has always been one of his most desirable. Dürer himself clearly considered it one of his greatest achievements as a printmaker, even twenty years after engraving it. He took it with him on his journey to the Netherlands in 1521 and in his travel diary recorded six occasions of selling or presenting the print to potential patrons.
Saint Eustace, the patron saint of huntsmen and one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, was one of the most popular saints of the 15th and 16th centuries. According to the Legenda Aurea a Roman commander called Placidus, whilst out hunting, had a vision of Christ on the Cross between the antlers of a stag. The animal spoke to him: Placidus, wherefore followest me hither? I am appeared to thee in this beast for the grace of thee. I am Jesu Christ, whom thou honourest ignorantly... and Placidus fell on his knees. He converted to Christianity and was baptised with the name Eustace.
In Dürer's engraving the hunter is shown kneeling on the banks of a river, transfixed by the vision, while his horse and hounds in the foreground wait patiently for their master. In fact, Dürer seems less interested in the divine miracle than in the depiction of God's creation itself. All the animals are beautifully observed, as is the woodland vegetation, the gnarled tree trunk, and the view in the distance of a hill surmounted by a castle, with a flock of birds spiralling around its castellated turrets. While the young artist had not yet completely mastered the spatial relationships - the saint for example seems to hover in the air rather than kneel firmly on the ground - he revels in the meticulous description of the natural world, from the reflections of the ducks in the river to the splintered branches of the dead tree. The overall effect is that of a magnificent tapestry rather than a fully coherent pictorial space.
Such is the richness of detail and the virtuoso depiction of the material world that it renders the religious narrative almost inconsequential. The print is no less delightful for it. One of the most admired and best loved elements in Dürer's whole graphic oeuvre are the greyhounds in the foreground, which prompted Giorgio Vasari's effusive description of the engraving as 'amazing, and particularly for the beauty of some dogs in various attitudes, which could not be more perfect'.