This exquisite example of Albrecht Dürer's "Knight, Death and the Devil" (Meder a-b) demonstrates the German master's unrivaled skill as an engraver and his profound understanding of Renaissance humanist ideals.
Completed in 1513, the composition features a fully armored knight on horseback, accompanied by his loyal dog, traversing through a dense, foreboding forest. Death, depicted as a cadaverous figure with a crown of serpents and an hourglass to symbolize the inexorable passage of time, rides a skeletal horse beside the knight. Meanwhile, the Devil, a grotesque, horned creature with bat-like wings, lurks in the shadows, holding a polearm.
Dürer masterfully employs a high level of detail, chiaroscuro, and perspective to create a sense of depth and atmosphere in the scene. The forest's gnarled branches and twisted trunks contribute to an ominous and unsettling backdrop, heightening the tension of the allegory. The artist's use of fine, controlled hatching and cross-hatching accentuates the textures of the knight's armor, the horses' musculature, and the foliage.
This Meder a-b impression is of particular note, as it represents an early state with a crisp and clean image. The fine lines and details of the engraving are well-preserved, and the impression is dark and rich in tone. Overall, this exceptional print is a testament to Dürer's enduring influence on the Northern Renaissance and his unparalleled mastery of the engraving medium.
Illustrated Bartsch (.098):
Many explanations have been offered for the meaning of this engraving. The knight has been called both "impious" and "defender of the Christian faith," although any Christian symbolism is absent. Clearly he is already beyond the temptation of the devil, whereas Death is, at this moment, reminding him of transience. However, the level of sand in the hourglass indicates that he has still some time to live. The oak-leaves tied to the horse's head and tail suggest, according to tradition, that the knight is returning from a successful hunt. Was it one for truth? His only trophy appears to be the foxtail on his lance, symbolic of lies, while below, the dog "Veritas" (Truth) is pursuing the hare "Problema," a representation that occurs in Gregor Reisch's very popular Margarita Philosophica (Freiburg 1503), and in many later editions. Panofsky asserted that this print symbolizes "active life," as opposed to the "contemplative life" of "St. Jerome in His Study" (.060). Yet there is no record of Durer's having given away these two engravings as a pair. In the diary of his trip to the Low Countries, he refers to "Knight Death and Devil" simply as der Reuter [the rider]. He sold an impression of it 24 November 1520, and gave one away for a present 11 February 1521. The lizard, according to Pliny (vol. 2, p. 635), warns of impending danger. A preparatory drawing tor it remains in Paris (SD.1494/8). The horse is constructed proportionally and is based on the drawings SD.1495/48, 1513/1 and 1513/2. Its right hind leg shows a correction on the hoof. For the dog, see the drawing SD.1513/3.