Remembering a Roman soldier who went hunting…

Today, September 20, Catholics would be celebrating the feast of St Eustace according to the liturgical calendar had the legend of his conversion not been found “completely fabulous” by the Church – and fabulous indeed it is. As the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine recounts the story of the Emperor Trajan’s general Placidus, known after his conversion as Eustachius / Eustace:

on a day, as he was on hunting, he found an herd of harts, among whom he saw one more fair and greater than the other, which departed from the company and sprang into the thickest of the forest. And the other knights ran after the other harts, but Placidus siewed him with all his might, and enforced to take him. And when the hart saw that he followed with all his power, at the last he went up on a high rock, and Placidus approaching nigh, thought in his mind how he might take him. And as he beheld and considered the hart diligently, he saw between his horns the form of the holy cross shining more clear than the sun, and the image of Christ, which by the mouth of the hart … spake to him, saying: Placidus, wherefore followest me hither? I am appeared to thee in this beast for the grace of thee. I am Jesu Christ … I come hither so that by this hart that thou huntest I may hunt thee. And some other say that this image of Jesu Christ which appeared between the horns of the hart said these words. And when Placidus heard that, he had great dread, and descended from his horse to the ground.


Pisanello’s “The Vision of Saint Eustace” in the National Gallery in London captures the fabled scene wonderfully:

Pisanello St Eustace

There is also a Durer engraving of the scene.


Catholic doctrine requires that the commemorations of saints should remain faithful to historical fact and not legend, and accordingly the commemoration of St. Eustace passes into the hands of those for whom dreams can carry as rich a freight of meaning as waking life.

John Fowles, in his journal for 1 August 1963, writes of Pisanello:

Over all his paintings hangs ‘the strangest poetry of situation’… I see in his paintings all I have tried so many years to do in certain poems – that is, to rise above the mere gimmickry of ambiguity of metaphor and image and to achieve a kind of meta-allegorical, the strange moment caught, as he perfectly catches the haunting and multiple mystery of the man riding through the magical forest and coming on the stag with the crucifix.

His painterly alter-ego, Breasley, in Fowles’ magnificent novella The Ebony Tower, speaks of Pisanello as his “central source”:

Breasley himself had partly confirmed this, when someone had had the successful temerity to ask him for a central source and for once received a partly honest answer: Pisanello and Diaz de la Pefla. The reference to Diaz and the Barbizon School was a self-sarcasm, needless to say. But pressed on Pisanello, Breasley had cited a painting in the National Gallery in London, The Vision of St Eustace; and confessed it had haunted him all his life.

The St Eustace turns up again in Fowles’ novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman and in his essay The Tree — where he admits that Breasley’s “central source” is among his own:

We all have our favourite pictures, or ikons, and one of mine has long been a painting by Pisanello in the National Gallery in London, The Vision of St. Eustace: the saint-to-be sits on his horse in a forested wilderness – he is out hunting – arrested before his vision of a stag bearing Christ crucified between its antlers. Other animals, birds and flowers crowd the background of the small picture… What is truly being hounded, harried and crucified in this ambiguous little masterpiece is not Christ, but nature itself.

Fowles is not alone in his appreciation for the legend: another of the greatest writers of the recently-ended century also found inspiration in St. Eustace.

Russell Hoban’s masterwork Riddley Walker carries us into a post-apocalyptic world with its own transfigured English language. Hoban wrote his novel under the inspiration of a mural he saw in Canterbury Cathedral, here described by Charles Eveleigh Woodruff in his 1912 Memorials of the Cathedral & Priory of Christ in Canterbury.

In the recess of the blocked window nearest to the transept in the same aisle a faded representation of the legend of St Eustace may still be traced. … That this picture is meant to illustrate the life and martyrdom of St Eustace is clear from the crucifix between the antlers of a large white stag, which is in accordance with the legend of his conversion; and the brazen bull, with a fire burning beneath, into which an executioner is forcing the martyr.

In Hoban’s telling, St Eustace becomes Eusa, and his legend as depicted in that mural at Canterbury Cathedral the center of what memory survives the holocaust. Here is the Cathedral as Hoban’s post-apocalyptic narrator finds it:

The wood be come stoan in the woom of her what has her woom in Cambry. That place unner the groun where I wer it wer a wood of stoan it wer stoan trees growing unner the groun. Parbly that stoan ben cut and carvit by them as made them jynt music pipes I never seen. Roun trunks of stoan and each 1 had 4 stoan branches curving up and over Norf Eas Souf and Wes all them curving branches they connectit 1 tree to a nother. Stoan branches holding up the over head and growt in to it. Stoan branches unner a stoan sky. A stoan wood unner the groun the hart of the wood in the hart of the stoan in the woom of her what has her woom in Cambry.

In Hoban’s own Glossary on p. 235 of Riddley Walker: Expanded Edition, the entry for “wud” reads:

Means wood as in forest; also ‘would,’ intention, volition or desire. The hart of the wud is where Eusa saw the stag who was the hart of the wud. The heart of the would is also the essence of one’s wanting, the heart of one’s deepest desire. The crypt in Canterbury Cathedral with its stone trees is the spiritual hart of the wud.


Jacobus de Voragine, an anonymous mural painter of Canterbury, Pisanello, Albrecht Durer, John Fowles, Russell Hoban…

The church of the arts does not fail to commemorate and celebrate the sanctities of the imagination.

15 thoughts on “Remembering a Roman soldier who went hunting…”

  1. I had not heard of St. Eustace until today. Shame on me!

    I have heard of Fowles, but not read him. I have heard of Hoban and Riddley Walker but not read it.

    The legend itself is cryptic.

    I have heard of the Hound of Heaven, who pursues, but not the Hart who pursues by enticing pursuit.

    Is the implication that the beauty of nature is a window to the Divine?

  2. I’d rather believe this family’s horrific tribulations were fabulous than Eustace’s encounter with Christ on/in/as a stag.

    Hope it isn’t too heretical to say, from now on for me, venison will taste a little of the eucharist and branching antlers appear like trees of stoan with a holy hartwud at core.

    You know, when a stag turns his head, the uprights and crossed tines can remind of a crucifix, especially in the low light of a wood where divine mystery and revelation feel very much glimpsed.

  3. Lex:

    Here’s the entry for Sts. Eustachius and Companions from the online (now one-hundred-year-old) Catholic Encyclopedia:

    The legend relates that Eustachius (before baptism, Placidus), a Roman general under Trajan, while still a heathen, saw a stag coming towards him, with a crucifix between its horns; he heard a voice telling him that he was to suffer much for Christ’s sake. He received baptism, together with his wife Tatiana (or Trajana, after baptism Theopista) and his sons, Agapius and Theopistus. The place of the vision is said to have been Guadagnolo, between Tibur and Praeneste (Tivoli and Palestrina), in the vicinity of Rome. Through adverse fortune the family was scattered, but later reunited. For refusing to sacrifice to the idols after a victory, they suffered death in a heated brazen bull. Baronius (Ann. Eccl., ad an. 103, 4) would identify him with Placidus mentioned by Josephus Flavius as a general under Titus.

    I’m not sure quite how I stumbled across the fact that yesterday (Sept 20) was the (old calendar) feast of St Eustace — I know the story from art history and literature rather than from the Martyrology – but some time after completing my post above, I took a closer look at the beautiful shamanic drum that blog-friend Cheryl Rofer drew our attention to on Phronesisaical yesterday, and found my way from there to the description of its symbolism, which included the following reference to St Hubert — whose conversion story closely corresponds to that of St Eustace:

    The cryptic symbols on Mr Vallance’s drum reflect the Saami shamanic universe, filtered through his own life’s story: his noid map is a mix of ancient Northern European lore and Californian surfer culture.
    At the centre of the drum membrane is a cross-tree, with at its diamond-shaped centre Mandash-pyrre, the mythical reindeer that with its shiny golden antlers also was a sun symbol. The centrality of reindeer is no coincidence, as Saami survival was intertwined with, and indeed dependent on, the life and migrations of these herds.
    On the northern branch, symbols show (bottom to top) a stick figure with a bow chasing a reindeer (symbolising the hunt), and a cross between antlers (referring to the North Star, and Saint Hubert who was blinded and converted by such a cross while stag-hunting in the Ardennes).

    According to Wikipedia, the story of Hubert’s conversion was “appropriated from the legend of Saint Eustace or Placidus” and “first attributed to St. Hubert in the 15th century”.

  4. My thanks, Anon, Good Nurse.

    I don’t believe there are any direct references to the St Eustace story in Shakespeare, but he could have been familiar with the tale, and apparently a miracle play titled “Placy Dacy, alias Saint Eustacy” was performed in Essex in 1534, although in the words of one scholar “It would be an error of misplaced concreteness to say that Shakespeare saw this story acted in a later production, or even that he was familiar with the career of St. Eustace.”

  5. Nice post, Charles.

    I had not heard of him either. There’s a host of semi-mythological aspects to the British isles circa 300-600 AD on which I could be better informed. It must have been something to have been an educated, upper-class, Romano-Celtic Britain then and see the Empire retreat and civilization fade over the course of a lifetime. Or grow up hearing stories of generations past when Britain was part of a prosperous, dynamic, Empire. Early Christianity, was a bridge that helped conserve social cohesion when ancient institutions were failing and age-old customs were being abandoned in the face of disorder.

  6. Hi Zen:

    I was thinking of “landscape embedded with meaning” as in “augmented reality” yesterday. It’s something I’ve been pondering for at least a dozen years now in terms of the possibilities for game play — precursors would include the Art of Memory which “places” thoughts on a remembered architecture for later recollection, and the songlines of the Australias of which Bruce Chatwin wrote…

    In any case, my mind drifted to Manassas, the lonely cannon on a grassy rise that I used to drive past on my commute from Warrenton to Arlington, VA, and my deeply sad sense there of the landscape as a palimpsest — with history overwritten but not obliterated by the present moment. And that, I think, was what set me thinking about Broceliande and the Arthurian cycle, and the way Fowles layers his forest of Paimpont over it so that the old Arthurian “magical” forest shines through its contemporary “factual” equivalent…

    Which in turn led me to St Eustace.

    So the mythistorical, Arthurian Britain is never too far from my thoughts.

  7. Lex:

    I do think nature is a window to the divine, and that the legend suggests that St Eustace had a glimpse through that window — that it became, if you will, transparent for him.

    If you take these words of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I of Constantinople:

    The fundamental criterion for an environmental ethic is not individualistic or commercial. The acquisition of material goods cannot justify the self-centered desire to control the natural resources of the world. Greed and avarice render the world opaque, turning all things to dust and ashes. Generosity and unselfishness render the world transparent, turning all things into a sacrament of loving communion — communion between human beings with one another, communion between human beings and God. This need for an ascetic spirit can be summed up in a single key word: sacrifice. This exactly is the missing dimension in our environmental ethos and ecological action.

    together with these words of Pope Benedict XVI

    The role of the priesthood is to consecrate the world so that it may become a living host, a liturgy: so that the liturgy may not be something alongside the reality of the world, but that the world itself shall become a living host, a liturgy. This is also the great vision of Teilhard de Chardin: in the end we shall achieve a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host.

    I think they point in the same direction as John Fowles’ “haunting and multiple mystery of the man riding through the magical forest and coming on the stag with the crucifix”.

    Photography and fact cannot capture what Eustace can see, Pisanello can paint and Fowles can write…



    Patriarch Bartholomeos I, 2004.
    Pope Benedict XVI, 2009.

  8. Great post, Charles. Found the Bartholomeos I quote and his choice of language interesting:

    “The fundamental criterion for an environmental ethic is not individualistic or commercial. The acquisition of material goods cannot justify the self-centered desire to control the natural resources of the world. Greed and avarice render the world opaque, turning all things to dust and ashes. Generosity and unselfishness render the world transparent, turning all things into a sacrament of loving communion — communion between human beings with one another, communion between human beings and God. This need for an ascetic spirit can be summed up in a single key word: sacrifice. This exactly is the missing dimension in our environmental ethos and ecological action.”

    Paul said, “For the wages of sin (of a larger universe of things bad than greed and avarice alone) is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 6:23—the “Ultimate Sacrifice.” I found the Patriarchs juxtaposition of language interesting since Paul used a market metaphor to describe the notion that man must work and receive a “wage” for sin, but that eternal life is a “gift.” Many refuse/ignore the simplicity of this Ultimate Generosity.

    I agree with you and Lex on “nature” being a window on the divine; but my gut tells me nature is evidence of the divine.

    Zen has a great piece on education from yesterday ( and onparkstreet provided a link to a NYTs article about how everything we read becomes part of our fabric—your post was personal evidence for me; as I hadn’t thought of these things in too long. Thanks.

  9. Thank you, Charles. The links you draw between landscape and liturgy, image and imagination, high story and history can’t help but intrigue. Songlines will be something for me to read before a triptrek to Australia this Dec. When I get organized, will follow up on more of the net-links to your other thots and rec’d readings, specifically re how our eye and mindset are mutually defining. Two kinds of view that must keep merging.

    I wonder, if different cultures have specific iconic vocabs, are there environmental experiences that transcend any particular history memory? I read a positive review of Songlines that nevertheless said Chatwin didn’t and couldn’t as a visiting whiteman really “see” the aborigine landscape. Can we only interpret our sensing through the prism of a (collective) past?

  10. Maximilian:

    It took me a while to respond, because your question about “environmental experiences that transcend any particular history memory” really demanded some slow-brain contemplative processing on my part. I don’t think I really know the answer, but having a tradition surely helps.

    Here’s a thought, though…

    I spent a few months in Sedona, AZ a year or two back – a place I’d hitherto avoided because I was so tired of all the new age talk of vortices there. It’s a gorgeous, stunning place – and I came to the conclusion that “vortex” was just a word that people use to give some semblance of quasi-scientific rationality to the overwhelming, numinous experience of sheer beauty.

    Putting that another way, “beauty” may be a word we use for “the sacred” when we stumble across it in the landscape.

  11. And J Scott, my thanks to you, too.

    There’s a long tradition of considering nature as a “book” which can be read in parallel with scripture, “written” by the same author. Thus Hugh of St Victor writes:

    For this whole visible world is a book written by the finger of God, that is, created by divine power […] But just as some illiterate man who sees an open book looks at the figures but does not recognize the letters: just so the foolish natural man who does not perceive the things of God outwardly in these visible creatures the appearances but does not inwardly understand the reason. But he who is spiritual and can judge all things, while he considers outwardly the beauty of the work inwardly conceives how marvellous is the wisdom of the Creator.

    I think we’re in considerable agreement…

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