The largest of all Dürer's engravings, Saint Eustace has always been regarded as one of his greatest. Dürer himself considered this early work something of a show-piece and took it with him on his journey to the Netherlands in 1521. In his travel diary he mentions six occasions of selling or presenting it to potential patrons.
The subject matter was well chosen - Saint Eustace, the patron saint of huntsmen, was enormously popular in Northern Europe at this time. According to the legend a Roman soldier called Placidas saw a vision of the crucified Christ appear between the antlers of a stag he was hunting. Upon hearing God's voice spoken by the animal, 'O Placidas, why pursuest thou me?', he fell on his knees, was converted and baptized with the name Eustace.
In Dürer's engraving the saint is shown kneeling on the banks of a stream, transfixed by his vision, while his horse and hounds wait patiently for their master. The animals are depicted with delightful naturalism, as is the woodland vegetation, the gnarled and splintered 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. This display of technical virtuosity may have been Dürer's counter to the hotly contested view prevalent in the 16th century that sculpture was superior to painting due to its capacity to show the figure three-dimensionally. Dürer's depiction of the natural world in Saint Eustace in such exquisite detail - and in the case of the dogs from different sides at once - was a provocative claim for the parity of painting. One of the most admired and best loved elements in Dürer's whole graphic oeuvre are indeed the greyhounds in the foreground, which prompted 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'.
Fine, early impressions of Saint Eustace, such as the present one, have always ranked amongst the most highly-prized possessions of a print collector.