St. Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral


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!



6 thoughts on “St. Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral

  1. Douglas Reveley

    The legend of St Eustace plays a foundational role in the novel “Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban. The action takes place in a future England, perhaps 2 or 3 thousand years and the story of Eusa is the core myth, derived from a remnant informational pamphlet about the painting you have displayed. In the “Expanded Edition” of the book there is a small black and white photo of the painting so seeing your presentation is very helpful. I have reread the book several times as there is always something new to discover. It is written in a future dialect of English so it is like discovering the picture in a puzzle as you assemble it. Thank you for this piece of the puzzle!

    1. Claudia Suzan Carley Post author

      Douglas, thank you for this! I must look up that book! I’ve seen several other images of St. Eustace and his vision since the one at Canterbury. It seems this story meant a lot to people over the years.

  2. Lawrence Harding

    As an interesting aside, the Legend of Eustace is generally believed to have been founded on a folk-tale of the “Man Tried By Fate” type that was Christianised into an exemplary tale and had the stag-based conversion scene and the martyrdom added to make him a “proper” saint. I don’t think anyone today believes he was a genuine historical figure – I’m pretty sure the Catholic Church have removed him from the Sanctorale as having too little proof of his actual existence! The martyrdom, for instance, is a mash-up of the Book of Daniel and Greek stories about tyrants roasting people in bronze bulls.

    Also interesting that the mural states that his sons are eaten – in every variant I’ve come across the boys are kept alive by God until a Big Reveal/Happily-Ever-After-At-Least-Until-Martyrdom.

    1. Claudia Suzan Carley Post author

      Very interesting, Lawrence! It seems that some legends about saints take on a life of their own, especially if the optics are interesting. St. Jerome with his ever-present lion companion is one of my favorites, mentioned in other posts. He was most likely an actual scholar, but his claim to fame was the legend that he removed a thorn from the paw of a grateful lion. Thanks for your comment!


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