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  • "In order to depict human fortitude, Dürer engraved an armed man on horseback with such perfection that even the glitter of his weapons and the coat of his black horse can be discerned." —Giorgio Vasari

    Knight, Death and the Devil is one of three large prints that form Dürer’s Meisterstiche or Master Engravings. All produced between 1513 and 1514, Knight, Death and the Devil, accompanied by Melancholia I and Saint Jerome in His Study, are considered to correspond to the three kinds of medieval scholarly virtue – theological, intellectual, and moral. Embodying the state of moral virtue, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the inevitability of mortality, Knight, Death and the Devil is one of the most famous and influential of Dürer's works.

     

    Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, 1514
    Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, 1514 Image: Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Antonio Quattrone / Bridgeman Images
    Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514
    Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome in His Study, 1514 Image: Bridgeman Images

    Simply called the Reuter (Rider) by the artist, Dürer depicts a full armoured knight sitting astride a battle-ready war horse, traversing a rocky Nordic gorge, a hostile landscape with barren, broken trees and thorny shrubs. The Knight’s left hand clutches the reigns of his muscular steed and his right hand holds a lance; while his sword is sheathed, it is positioned close to his side. The Knight is accompanied by the skeletal deteriorating figure of Death, who rides his own Pale Horse, and holds out the hourglass of Time, in which half the time is already spent. The Pale Horse’s head is bowed, leading the viewer to look at a skull placed atop a tree stump (in the lower left corner) – a powerful memento mori, and possible warning to the Knight of the way ahead. Stalking the Knight is a pig-snouted Devil, adorned with horns and holding a pike, eagerly awaiting his demise.

     

    While countless attempts have been made to identify the central figure, both historical and/or mythical, none have been substantiated. Among the heroes the Knight has been thought to represent are Martin Luther, Savanarola, Pope Julius II (who died in 1513) and the much feared warrior knight, Franz von Sickingen, who in 1513 attacked the city of Worms with 7000 men on behalf of a citizen who had been expelled. The rider is most frequently associated with the ideal image of the Christian knight, who fearlessly, and without a backward glance, follows the path toward salvation, never allowing himself to become distracted by Death nor tempted by the Devil. In 1875 Hermann Grimm suggested that this print was Dürer’s response to Desiderius Erasmus’ writings in the Handbook for the Christian Soldier, which says, ‘In order that you may not be deterred from the path of virtue because it seems rough and dreary ... and because you must constantly fight three unfair enemies - the flesh, the devil, and the world - this third rule shall be proposed to you: all of those spooks and phantoms which come upon you as if you were in the very gorges of Hades must be deemed for naught after the example of Virgil's Aeneas ... Look not behind thee.’ 

     

    The rider and horse are thought to be modelled on traditional Italian equestrian portraits, those which embodied moral virtue, that Dürer would have seen during his stay in Venice in 1505. The articulation of the whole form of the horse, connection of the head and neck, and clearly defined legs, alongside the decoration on it’s poll, and that of the rider’s helmet, closely resemble two great equestrian statues of the Italian 15th century, Donatello's Gattamelata in Padua and Verrocchio's Colleoni in Venice.

     

    Patrick Nicolle, Statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni by Andrea Verrocchio, 1977
    Patrick Nicolle, Statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni by Andrea Verrocchio, 1977 Image: © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

    The three prints represent the pinnacle of Dürer’s technical accomplishment as an engraver. From 1507 Dürer experimented with lighting effects in his prints, introducing middle grey tones between the palest and darkest areas of an image. These grey tones were built through a complexity of minute dots, curved lines, and cross hatching, and produced a large array of textures on the surface of the printing plate. The resulting detail created prints with clarity never before seen. Admiringly Vasari wrote of Knight, Death and the Devil, ‘In order to depict human fortitude, he [Dürer] engraved an armed man on horseback with such perfection that even the glitter of his weapons and the coat of his black horse can be discerned.’  

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Sold for £47,880

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Evening & Day Editions

London Auction 21 January 2021