Albrecht Dürer’s The Knight, Death, and the Devil is an engraving from 1513–14 by the German Renaissance master. Alongside his other large format prints, Melancholia I and Saint Jerome in His Study, these are referred to as his Meisterstiche or ‘master engravings’. Yet these engraved reproductions of philosophical themes are not a trilogy, although they are related in the compositional qualities which set them apart from other engravings of the era due to their remarkable quality. Knight, Death, and the Devil is a treatise on moral virtue, commemorating the good Christian Knight, possibly based on an instructive pamphlet by the great thinker Erasmus. Riding fearlessly through a gloomy landscape, Dürer's knight passes the figurative reproduction of Death, seated astride a horse holding out an hourglass to remind the soldier of his own mortality. Trailed from behind by a pig-nosed demon, the rider represents the moral hero as a haunting and isolated figure, marching resolutely into the unknown.
At the time that Dürer created this masterful engraving he was in the service of the Emperor Maximilian, and was surely compelled to demonstrate the apparent superior moral sense of the Nordic peoples. Although a towering figure that revived the medieval senses of stoic chivalry, the rider appears gloomy and downcast in his posture and features. Only buoyed by his sturdy horse, the surrounding gloom appears ready to envelop him. For this reason many critics have argued whether the work is a morality tale at all. Some have pointed to the possibility that Dürer may have instead been depicting a symbol of greed, or a robber. Yet, regardless of the artist’s intent, Knight, Death, and the Devil is a supreme symbol of the Northern Renaissance.
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