Among the many treasures at Canterbury Cathedral, one of my favorites on my visit this week was this large large wall painting, done in about 1480. It’s the legend of St. Eustace, who lived a colorful if harrowing life. He might possibly have been a known historical character, a Roman general named Placidus, in the 2nd century A.D.
The legend goes that Placidus was out hunting one day when he had a vision of Christ in the antlers of a stag. He immediately converted to Christianity and changed his name to Eustace.
It’s hard to see the images that go high up the stone wall of the catheral. But there’s a horizontal copy nearby. Photos of it are not great because it’s covered by glass, but the reflections of the stained glass windows are sort of a bonus. I loved the images, especially the animals like the smiling stag and the hunting dogs above.
The legend goes that Eustace’s troubles began right away. His faith was tested by various calamities.
I was admiring the lion image. Personality plus! Then I read that the lion was grinning because he had just eaten Eustace’s son.
The wolf, looking all innocent? He had eaten the other son. But the legend goes that Eustace endured his hardships and kept his faith.
The painter of the Canterbury mural subscribed to a disputed end of Eustace’s story: the very upper part of the mural shows Eustace, his wife and his remaining children being roasted alive by order of the Emperor Hadrian. Eustace had refused to make a pagan sacrifice. Then they were all beatified, so there was still a happy ending of sorts. However, the martyrdom and even the historical existence of the saint are in doubt. I love the painting, regardless of the source. Bravo to the anonymous painter, back through the centuries!
To me, the charm of the mural is in the medieval images of people in nature, learning lessons from animals. The painter told the story with gusto and some humor.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!