The Library

Animals > Stags


Stag 1


17th-century Flemish oak panel in original carved frame, originally a cupboard door, showing the goddess Diana in her guise as a huntress.  She was also identified by the Romans with the moon goddess Luna.  In this panel she combines both roles.  In her left hand she holds up a crescent moon with a carved human face on it over a classical pillar, while seated at her feet is the stag she has pursued in the forest whose trees can be seen behind her.  She wears nothing but a belt to hold the quiver and is obviously intended to be seen as a great beauty.  She is a slim, athletic woman, often portrayed as such in the 16th century, as an oblique reference to Diane de Poitiers, the influential mistress of Henri II of France.




Stag 2


Stag carved from oak and painted in brown ochre.  The eyes, picked out in black, stare upwards with a beseeching gaze.  The animal’s curved neck displays the hairy ruff or mane of a red-deer stag and the short tail is held characteristically close against its rump.  The well-fed beast is shown in its prime, but is now missing the lower part of two legs and a foot.  More crucially, the antlers have been shorn off.


It is probable that the animal was originally part of a St Hubert group.  The legend that one Good Friday when out hunting Hubert was confronted by a white stag with an image of the crucified Christ between its antlers is clearly borrowed from the legend of St Eustace.  This same vision supposedly caused both men to convert to Christianity. In medieval art it is usually St Eustace who is shown with a stag but at some point in the fourteenth century the legends became confused and by the Renaissance St Hubert is more often to be found.  Hubert features only in the art of Northern Europe and is the patron saint of hunters.


Bestiary writers mention the enmity between stags and serpents; when a stag feels unwell it sucks serpents from their holes with a snort from its nostrils.  It then feeds on them until it feels restored to health.  This tale is easily assimilated into the Christian story where the stag is interpreted as a force for good destroying the wickedness of the serpent.