Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Pisanello, "The Vision of St. Eustace"

I had not made a connection between the remarkable story of St. Eustace and the Death of Actaeon. An article in Grafton and Most's The Classical Tradition (Harvard 2010), s.v. "Actaeon", has me rethinking it today.

St. Eustace a medieval chivalric saint, was out hunting alone in the woods when he encountered a magnificent stag between whose antlers the hunter perceived a shining manifestation of the crucified Christ. This brought about his conversion to the life of Christ. Like St. Hubert, who experienced a similar vision, St. Eustace is celebrated in frescoes in north Italian Benedictine convents of San Benedetto Po and San Paolo at Parma.

The tradition that modifies the myth of Actaeon into a Christian allegory begins with the 14th-century Ovide Moralisé, which makes Actaeon into a Christ figure who is wounded, killed, and turned into a hero in the face of divine opposition. Because "chivalric tradition considered stags royal animals, as the most regal of victims, they prefigured Christ's kingship as well as his suffering and death." (I.D.R in Grafton & Most.)

 Eustace's sighting of the crucifix is similarly transformative and surprising, like Actaeon's. For more deliberate hunting, compare Pisanello's to Boccaccio's 14th-century treatments in "The Nymph of Fiesole" and "The Hunt of Diana", which transform Artemis/Diana from a vindictive nature goddess into a divinity who preserves virginity and represents divine purity. Actaeon's pursuit in Boccaccio is a deliberate search.  (Grafton & Most)

The painting by Pisanello (1487), owned by the British National Gallery,  seems to bear little direct connection to the Actaeon myth. Probing it further might make for interesting results. Actaeon as Christian forebear?

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