Pisanello redraws the hunt

What remains of the work of the 15th-century Italian artist known only as Pisanello shows he was in the service of various ideals. He worked for courtly patrons, and the ideals of chivalry were integral to their self-image. But this was also a period when admiration for the ancients - for Greek and Roman art, poetry, and thought - was fashionably transforming what we now call "medieval."

Typical of this "renaissance," outstanding artists were lionized as geniuses rather than simply admired as craftsmen. Even from just the scrupulous drawing shown here (included in an exhibition at the National Gallery, London), though, it is clear that Pisanello was a proficient craftsman. But he was valued for more than that.

In a posthumous biography, he was praised as having "almost a poet's talent for painting the forms of things and representing feelings. But in painting horses and other animals he has, in the opinion of experts, surpassed all others...."

This image of a bear (drawn twice, the upper being an "improvement" on the lower) was one of a number of surviving preparatory drawings for a tiny panel painting titled, "The Vision of St. Eustace." It is one of only four panel paintings indisputably by Pisanello, all of which are on view, with numerous drawings, at the National Gallery.

The painting depicts a hunting scene in a wood, reminiscent of hunting-scene tapestries used as hangings in courts. It also derives from depictions of hunts in such manuscripts as "Books of Hunting" - manuals of the chase - or "Books of Hours" representing seasonal courtly events.

Pisanello typically studied and copied earlier drawings of birds and other animals, but then went further by drawing from living or dead specimens.

In the final painting, the bear is quarry, one of many animals intent on escape. Clearly, Pisanello had sympathy for this creature. Another drawing (not in this exhibit), attributed to him or his workshop, features a "Hound coursing a hare." It graphically expresses a sensitive awareness of the deadly relationship between hunting and hunted animals.

"The Vision of St. Eustace" is not, however, just a hunting scene. It shows a courtly huntsman arrestingly confronted by a religious vision. He and his horse are stopped in their tracks, faced by a stationary stag that refuses to be hunted. Between its antlers rises an image of the crucifixion. The story, from "The Golden Legend" (a medieval compilation of the lives of the saints), signifies an instant of conversion. The painting, intended for private meditation and devotion, also allowed its wealthy (unknown) original owner scope to glory in nature's beauties, the vitality of animal life, and the exciting "chivalry" of the hunt.

'Pisanello: Painter to the Renaissance Court' is on exhibit at the National Gallery London until Jan. 13, 2002.

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