In London’s National Gallery there’s a small tempera panel painting of The Vision of St Eustace, by the early 15th century Italian artist Pisanello, which draws me to it most times I visit.
In legend, Eustace was once a Roman general , Placidus, who was converted to Christianity while out hunting when he beheld a vision of the crucifix between the antlers of a stag. A string of misfortunes proceeded to test his new faith, until in 118 CE the emperor Hadrian finally condemned Eustace, along with his wife and sons, to be roasted to death inside a bronze ox, for refusing to perform a pagan sacrifice.
My fascination with this painting runs off in fanciful directions, supported on a sliver of art historical foundation. Pisanello’s Saint Eustace depicts a fleeting alignment of two worlds, two different ways of seeing and describing. One way, the almost-cohesive pictorial space that unites the fashionable Eustace and the crucifix-bearing stag, is the unifying humanist perspective of the High Renaissance, which is about to become the dominant presence in European art. The other way, seen in the surround of intricately-depicted creatures that each exist nested within their own field, their own numinosity, is the mediaeval vision of creation that is on the wane, and seems to attain here a defiant last insistence.
Hind, swans, storks, bear, hare, diminutive falcons: wild birds and animals appear in this painting in the symbolic, elusive density of dreams, myths, visionary journeying. They are drawn together in a space which doesn’t fit together, a vertiginous flat backdrop of jagged cliffs, forest trees, and starry white flowers, which make the whole setting seem like a tattered veil hung against the boundless night sky. The scene is composed as if from several angles and distances at once, without regard for natural proportions. The creatures are off, each unto their own worlds, even as they seem to be waiting together for something. Perhaps for the toll of their own eventual disappearance. Already, mediaeval Christianity stood broadly against the idea of animals possessing souls, and the coming scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries would further strip animals of meaning, sentience and intrinsic value. Down to the mass extinctions of our own time, the animals keep losing: their habitats, food, lives and futures. Pisanello’s animals, tucked in their self-containing spaces, recall to me my scrappy outsider knowledge of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, when all the manifest forms of creation lie sleeping inside the earth, waiting for songs to awaken them, to call them continuously into being. But here the Dream is fading, the song on the cusp of being mocked and forgotten, replaced by the angular, linear, technocratic visions that lie in wait beyond the cross and the promise of Renaissance that the future saint locks his eyes upon. The head of the stag under the crucifix is dull and blurry, subordinate to the vision, dying to the mirror of his brighter brother opposite: the golden stag who stands on an edge behind Placidus-becoming-Eustace, destabilising the gaze of the viewer with an intimation that all which came to pass might have been otherwise.
Meanwhile the dogs scatter and shift shape across the divide, half-decided. The pointers are obedient and train their heads in roughly the same direction as their master, but his greyhounds catch some deviant whiff of the old wolf-memory. One looks to and rhymes in colour with the bright stag, the other mimics the coil and spring of the fleeing hare. The brush-tailed pair of dogs disappearing below the horse’s rear hooves nurse their own reasons for abandoning the scene, and aren’t saying.
Christian conversion stories are always decisive, and the pivotal event is over in a moment. There is a clean before and after, the fug of pagan sin and idolatry abruptly replaced by the bright absolution of Christ’s eternal presence. ‘Once I was blind, now I can see’. No looking back in yearning at the seductive, salt-encrusted remnants of your former life. No vacillating and emotional yo-yo-ing, wondering whether you’ve done the right thing or not. Conversion strikes once, from the outside, and is incontrovertible.
Or at least, the doctrinal lessons and hagiographies record no details of ambivalence or second thought. Doubts register in them only as tests of faith, only in order to be wrestled with and overcome.
‘What does a culture gain when it loses perspective?’ The words float up as I’m making free-association notes for another purpose and gently turning around in my mind a recent blog post about perception and definition by my friend Daniela Othieno. Reflecting on her experiences with the Dark Mountain Project and much else besides, Daniela ponders the urge, manifest in a certain style of journalism and commentary, to define, classify and pin down, in already-familiar terms, any initiative (like Dark Mountain, or Occupy), that does not set an agenda but instead seeks to remain open, for exploration and to question. She draws a parallel with the defining habits of early colonial anthropologists, confident in the power of their discipline and worldview to explain the rituals, customs and everyday practices of the indigenous cultures they studied. Neither approach seems prepared to admit that their self-appointed authority to define what something is and means is limited and possibly even distorted by their own cultural conditioning. Nor is there much willingness to tolerate and inhabit uncertainty, to feel anew into what a object or experience – bones hung in trees, say – might variously be or represent for themselves and invested others, instead of resorting to pre-prepared associations that might have accurately described some similar thing in the past, but perhaps don’t do justice to what’s arising in the present.
The technical mastery of perspective drawing – one of the artistic triumphs of the European Renaissance – nests within a wider modern cultural valuation of perspective, which is taken so much for granted that loss or failure or lack of perspective is decried as a hallmark of unreason, of bias or mental slippage, of an opinion that does not deserve to be taken seriously. The modernist art of the 20th century – Cubism, Futurism, Dada, the Expressionisms – still jolts consensual normality, requires extra layers of explanation and justification, at least in part to the extent that it set aside perspective in favour of other visual possibilities and priorities. Perspective, in both art and everyday usage, is a point of view that orders the world from an imaginary outside; an appearance of the real (reasonable, far-sighted, wise) that depends on an agreed illusion (that of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, that of matters seen and interpreted from a detached vantage point which is accepted by convention as the correct one.)
Pisanello’s Saint Eustace hangs on the moment of conversion: to Christianity and to single-viewpoint perspective. The curious assembly of wild creatures, meticulously rendered in (visually) inconsistent and unresolved relationships, mostly lacking subordination to the central drama of the future saint witnessing the cross, preserves in eternal suspension the tactile, proximate richness of the pre-perspective vision that is about – often literally – to be sucked away into the far distance, if not out of the picture altogether. If this is a swan song of late mediaeval art, so as in a musical the entire supporting cast takes to the stage for the final number, and through the painting drift notes and airs from far older times and places: the riddles and shadows of the archaic worlds which Christianity eclipsed. Of course the Renaissance is already about rehabilitating the art, culture and learning of pre-Christian Greece and Rome, but its command of perspective also means that the more troublesome pagan mysteries will be kept in check (at least in much visual art, at least for a century or so), by their containment within a coherent illusion of depth.
I enjoy imagining all of this and at the same time, like the bones in the trees, The Vision of Saint Eustace beckons and prods me not to assume that I know what it is and means. The tipped-up visual plane and the hints of cosmic void stretching away behind the scattering of rocks, trees and star-flowers unsettle the easy confidence of my vision; the birds and animals shrink and swell, turn their backs, slink off the past the frame. Apart from the two beasts of burden and the servile pointers, they’re there, I suspect, for their own reasons. Not for Pisanello, nor Eustace, nor Placidus, nor the unknown patron, nor Christ. Not for me, or you either. As if they’re already aware that they will be sacrificed, without reason or limit, because the old pattern and meaning of sacrifice is going to be refused.
The gaps in the painting swallow me and hang me on the moment of conversion. I’m at once too close and too far away, as if disappearing under the tutelage of fur and feathers yet all the elements of the painting are constellations flung against the heavens, which make any sense I care to project onto them. There’s no space to turn in either of the obvious directions, with or against the tides that history has cast up – paganism and Christianity, mediaeval and Renaissance worldviews, perspective or the lack of it.
All that remains is to listen for what’s left of the song, and in it the doubts.