Albrecht Dürer, ‘Saint Eustace (B. 57; M., Holl. 60; S.M.S. 32)’, ca. 1501, Christie's Old Masters

Engraving, circa 1501, watermark High Crown (M. 20), a superb, early Meder b impression, very rich and black, yet printing with astonishing clarity, with burr in the trees and elsewhere, with thread margins on three sides, trimmed on or just within the platemark below but retaining a fillet of blank paper outside the subject, laid down along the edges onto an 18th century album sheet, a small surface abrasion on the muzzle of the second dog from the right, generally in very good, original condition.

The largest of all Dürer's engravings, Saint Eustace has always been regarded as one of his finest. Dürer himself considered this early work something of a show-piece, as he took it with him on his journey to the Netherlands in 1521. In his travel diary he mentions six occasions of him 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 Dü rer'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 have always ranked amongst the most highly-priced possessions of a print collector. The present impression compares well with the two outstanding examples in the British Museum from the collections Cracherode and Slade, and prints with unsurpassable subtlety and definition.

Duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth, Derbyshire (cf. L. 718 & 719); Christie's, London, Old Master Prints from Chatsworth, 5 December 1985, lot 12 (£190,000).

About Albrecht Dürer

Considered one of the foremost artists of the Renaissance period, Albrecht Dürer’s extensive work in printmaking transformed the categorization of the medium from craft to fine art. Often depicting religious subjects, Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings demonstrated unprecedented technical skill, tonal variation, and compositional sophistication. Dürer theorized extensively on linear perspective and anatomical proportion, concerns that were articulated in a vast body of written work as well as in his paintings and prints. Dürer’s skill earned him the role of court artist for Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, under whom he created a number of paintings and altarpieces. Dürer’s series of self-portraits, created throughout his career, represent some of his most iconic works.

German, 1471-1528, Nuremberg, Germany, based in Nuremberg, Germany