A Knight, Death and the Devil
This virtuoso engraving by Dürer shows a lone knight riding through an oppressive landscape. A dog runs at his horse’s feet, and Death holds aloft an hourglass while the Devil stalks behind. Although the meaning of this print has not been satisfactorily explained, it is clear that the message is an ominous one. A skull, a reminder of death, lies on a tree trunk in the left foreground, and a lizard, sometimes seen as a harbinger of danger, scuttles to the right. The figures in the foreground are enclosed by the rocky landscape and the brittle, dead trees. A city seen atop a mountain in the distance further serves to emphasise the knight’s isolation from society. Dürer’s image captured imaginations from the moment of its publication. Giorgio Vasari interpreted the central figure as representing ‘Human Strength’, and commented on the ‘lustre of the arms and of the black horse’s coat’. In the nineteenth century it was suggested that the print is an illustration of Erasmus’s influential text, the 'Handbook of a Christian Knight', published in 1503, which urged Christians to act as soldiers, combating temptation and malevolence with faith. The print also evokes the 23rd Psalm: ‘though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death, I will fear no evil’ (Psalms 23:4).
Along with 'St Jerome in his study' and the 'Melancholia', the ‘Rider’, as Dürer himself described this print, is one of three so-called master engravings ('Meisterstiche') produced by Dürer over the space of around a year between 1513 and 1514. Each of these was engraved on a plate of a similarly large size and all demonstrated Dürer’s ability to create a range of effects with the burin (the tool with which a plate is engraved). Although various theories have been advanced, there is no evidence that Dürer himself regarded the three 'Meisterstiche' as a set - the diary of his journey to the Netherlands shows that he gave them away separately rather than together, or paired 'St Jerome' with the 'Melancholia' but without the 'Knight'.
Dürer used a number of sources in his composition, among them a drawing of a mounted knight he had made 15 years earlier and studies of a dog and the proportions of a horse. It has been suggested that the pose of the knight was inspired by equestrian statues in Italy, particularly the monument commemorating Bartolommeo Colleoni, which Dürer must have seen during his stay in Venice, c.1505-7. Certainly the pose of the horse, the decoration on its poll and the sallet helmet worn by the knight are very close to the Colleoni statue, which was erected in 1494. Dürer may also have seen Donatello’s 1453 equestrian monument to the <i>condotierre</i> Gattamelata (Erasmo of Narni) in nearby Padua, and he may well have known, directly or through copies, studies by Leonardo da Vinci for the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza (on which Leonardo was working around 1490).
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011