Last week I wrote about several drawings and watercolors from the spectacular exhibition of works on paper by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) at the National Gallery of Art, leaving aside the show’s phenomenal selection of prints. I would like to return, however, to one engraving in particular.
“Knight, Death and Devil” (1513) is of course one of Dürer’s most famous works. The exhibition has not one but two copies on display: the first, from the National Gallery’s own collection, hangs beside a related watercolor, “A Knight on Horseback” (1498), and the other, from the Albertina in Vienna, appears with “Saint Jerome in His Study” and “Melancholia I” as part of the trio of master prints Dürer completed in 1513-1514,
As to be expected, the meaning of the engraving’s imagery is unsettled. Dürer, for his part, called it simply “Der Reuther” or “The Rider.” There have been attempts to identify the horseman as the servant of one of Dürer’s early patrons, and to cast him as a paradigm of Christian virtue on one hand and an exploiter of the peasant class on the other.
Chock-full of symbols — from the skull, dog and salamander along the bottom edge to the distant castle towers grazing the top — the picture sets its action in a compressed space barely the width of the Knight’s horse. With his diagonally oriented lance cropped at both ends, the Knight seems wedged, almost entombed, inside the borders of the print, as his two unwelcome visitors, Death and the Devil, encroach upon him from the jagged shadows of the shallow space behind.
The most curious character is the Devil, described in the exhibition catalogue as “demonic” but who — sporting the snout of a boar, the horns of a ram, the ears of an ass and a large, additional horn emerging from the top of his head — actually looks rather imbecilic.
The apparently phallic intent behind the Devil’s long, curved horn is literalized in an earlier engraving, “The Sea Monster” from around 1498 — the same year as “A Knight on Horseback,” mentioned above as a source for “Knight, Death and Devil.”
A curiosity relating to no known literary source, “The Sea Monster” depicts a half-human creature — bearded, horned and fish-tailed — carrying a nude woman away from shore to open waters. The monster’s penis, which creates a provocative arc with the woman’s fingers, is as curved and pointed as the Devil’s foolscap of a protuberance.
Squeezed behind the horse’s tail, the Devil is hardly the clever schemer of the Faust legend, but a stupid and brutish embodiment of the Knight’s animal urges — the frailties that the chivalric code was designed to purge and purify.
But purification is an impossible goal. The decaying visage of Death, coiled with snakes, reminds the Knight that he has only so much time left. The composition underscores the import of the draining hourglass held aloft in Death’s right hand, with Knight at its vertical midline and the intersection of his groin and the horse’s noble back at dead center.
Like Dante, the Knight is midway through his life’s journey, but there is no Virgil to lend a hand. The skull waits for him at his horse’s feet, far from the mansion in the sky and a very short path from the sins he is attempting — quite literally in the composition’s schema — to put behind him.
But is the time left to the Knight a mirage, a deception engineered by insatiable Death? The perfection of the composition locks all of its elements in place. The horse, rather than advancing, appears frozen in mid-step like an equestrian statue. There is no going forward. The Devil, whose head marks the start of an imaginary line that parallels the lance and ends at the skull, appears to have won.
In 1933, the National Socialists held their fifth party congress in Nuremberg. It was dubbed the Reichsparteitag des Sieges, or victory rally, to celebrate the Nazi takeover of the German government.
The mayor of Nuremberg, Dürer’s hometown, presented an original copy of “Knight, Death and Devil” to Adolf Hitler, calling him the “knight without fear or blame.” A year later, the Nazis returned to Nuremberg for their sixth congress, immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl in her devil’s work, The Triumph of the Will.
Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
“Knight, Death and Devil” (1513) is currently on view as part of Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Watercolors, and Prints from the Albertina, which continues at the National Gallery of Art (National Mall between Third and Ninth Streets, along Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through June 9.