Behold, a fairytale made real in the minds of men.
Wandering round The British Museum’s Mediaeval Europe room, past priceless trinkets, St Eustace stands out.
For strange reasons: anyone who has seen Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, St Eustace seems to have the same unsettling gaze that Lang’s robot double has in the film.
He stares unblinking at visitors as they amble past and invites the question: what am I?
St Eustace is a bone holder. A reliquary. An outer silver gilt shell was made to contain an inner wooden bust, and inside that were found the relics of several saints. These included nine fragments of skull said to be the last remains of one of the most enigmatic characters ever canonised by the Catholic Church.
Once upon a time he was a Roman general called Placidus, serving under the emperor Trajan, worshipping Roman household gods like any self-respecting Roman general would.
But the story goes that one day he was hunting in Tivoli, outside Rome, and he spied a stag. And what should be hovering between its antlers but an ethereal crucifix.
A steadfastly mediaeval vision; it has that incredibly literal feel to it. But it held enough power for the general that he converted instantly, had his whole family baptised and changed his name to Eustace. As you do.
Whereupon the ‘trials’ started. Eustace had a series of misfortunes; his wealth disappeared, his servants died and his wife was kidnapped. But Eustace stuck to his guns, and came through the tests with flying colours.
Unfortunately this is the mediaeval tale of a Roman saint, and a happy ending is not in order. Spectacularly, Eustace fell foul of the next emperor, Hadrian, and he and his family were roasted for their faith, inside a very large bronze effigy of an ox.
Still, a sad ending makes for a convincing martyr, and the mediaeval appetite for relics ensured that Eustace would have a considerable following. In the mediaeval church relics meant pilgrims and pilgrims meant money; it was worth encasing them in precious metal and stones, and recycled Roman glass, when bling increased the wow factor for tourists in sackcloth.
These days, few credits St Eustace. The Roman Catholic church has dubbed him ‘completely fabulous’. (Martyrologium Romanum” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001).
The Orthodox Church adopted him first, and his feast day is still held on September 20. Later his image began to appear in Europe. There are strong echoes of his tale in an old chivalric romance, The Man Tried By Fate. And much of what Eustace is said to have done has been re-attributed to a Belgian saint, St Hubert.
But stubbornly, his head remains. Originally from the cathedral in Basle, Switzerland, it sits in the British Museum dazzling the modern-day tourists as once he jazzed the pilgrims.
Noteable: how the power of a fairytale can displace reality with such consummate ease.