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Albrecht Dürer, The Knight, Death and the Devil (Der Reuter)

Engraving, 24.2 x 18.4 cm, Baillieu Library Collection, The University of Melbourne, Accession No. : 1988.2014.000.000.
Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was born on 21 May in Nuremberg, the “unrecognised capital” of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and labelled “Augusta praetoria imperii” (principal city of the Empire) by humanists (Anzelewsky, 1982, p. 7). Dürer had many influential people in his life who would affect his creative mind and allow him to achieve the position of pre-eminent artist and court painter (Münch, 2005, pp.181-182). Noteworthy influences include Anton Koberger (important and influential printer in Nuremberg and goldsmith); the Pirckheimer family (enterprising merchants and inventive craftsmen – especially Willibald Pirckheimer who was influential in Dürer’s humanist connections); Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (patricians and Dürer’s teachers) (Eichler, 2007, pp.10-13).Dürer’s training in his father’s goldsmith workshop allowed him to visualise the sculptural qualities of objects and their spatial relationships (Panofsky, 1955, p. 4). This would have a profound effect on Dürer’s career as a painter and printmaker and his ability to create extraordinary quality in his intaglio works. Dürer would come to discover that, by ‘breaking the rules’ of intaglio technique, he would be able to strengthen the illusion of spatial depth, plastic modelling, textual concreteness, and even luminosity. One such method that Dürer discovered was to add refinements to the technique of ‘hatching’ and ‘simple cross- hatching’ to create the technique of double-cross hatching’ (Panofsky, 1955, p 66; Fuga, 2006, pp. 62-63). Evidence of this is contained throughout the print in question; including the display of movement in the horse, the sheen of the knight’s armour and the varying shades to represent the division between background and foreground. The image is still clear and bright and the definition of the shading via the cross-hatching technique allows you to notice the contrast between the characters amid a dark and foreboding setting.

Between 1512 and 1517 Dürer become actively involved with commissions for the Emperor Maximilian; including the largest woodcut made from 192 separate wood blocks – The Triumphal Arch. Dürer was kept quite busy with the Emperor’s requests, the years 1513 and 1514 allowed him time to work on his own projects to enable a continuing source of income from the sales of new editions of his woodcut series (Eichler, 2007, p. 88). An example of the latter work is this print, entitled The Knight, Death and the Devil. Dürer completed the piece in 1513 as evidenced by the date within the plaque that shows his recognisable AD monogram.

Panofsky claims that Dürer was probably aware of the fact that this print, together with two others (mentioned below), would be an important enterprise as was manifested in the special form of the signature (Panofsky, 1955, p. 151). The ‘S’ before the date is thought to stand for Salus, which is equivalent to Anno salutis (in the year of grace), a form of dating that Dürer frequently used in his writings (Strauss, 1973, p. 150). This can be seen in the identical placement of the date lines of his first drafts for the introduction to his Treatise on Human Proportions, composed between 1512 and 1513.

The print is probably part of a set depicting closely related ideals of virtue in medieval scholasticism: theology, intellect, and morality. This print (which Dürer simply called Der Reuter; or The Rider) embodies the state of moral virtue. Intellect and theology are represented in Dürer’s other prints of the same oeuvre entitled Melancholia I, and St. Jerome in his Study. These three copperplate engravings are thought of as Dürer’s greatest engravings and are referred to as his Meisterstiche (master engravings). This print was created first, while the other two followed in 1514. The three engravings are of a similar size and format, and they share an overall silvery tone with brilliant whites and blacks. The Meisterstiche represent Dürer’s supreme achievement as an engraver (Panofsky, 1955, pp. 151-153).

In this print, the rider is not distracted and is true to his mission. He rides on, looking neither left, nor right, nor behind him. Incidentally, the horse and rider are modelled on the tradition of heroic equestrian portraits with which Dürer was familiar from his time spent in Italy especially given his interest in Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings on proportion. One of the distractions to his moral path is symbolised by the Devil – with his ingratiating grin and pig nose. The Devil is portrayed as being powerless when ignored by the rider. The other distraction is symbolised by Death – who is a ghostly corpse without a nose or lips. Death holds up an hourglass to the Knight as a reminder that his time on earth is limited (Wolf, 2006, p. 47).

The Knight’s true destination or journey is represented by the castle in the top background – a safe stronghold that rises above the dark forest and symbolises God. The dog has long been a symbol of faith, while Eichler (2007, p. 91) regards the lizard as a representation of religious zeal. However, the dog could also represent this role. The whole scene represents the steady route of the faithful, through all of life’s injustices and temptations, to God.

Eichler and Strauss have suggested that Dürer based his depiction of the “Christian Knight” on an address from Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Handbook for the Christian Soldier (Enchiridion militis Christiani, circa 1502) (Eichler, 2007, p. 91; Strauss 1973, p. 150): “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.” (Panofsky, 1969, p. 221)

Campbell Hutchinson suggests that another influence may have been that Hans Burgkmair’s chiaroscuro woodcut of 1508 that depicted the Emperor Maximilian as “the last knight”, in full armour and on horseback. His reputation as warrior and tournament hero, and his dedication to the militant St George, had inspired a number of knightly images in the imperial lands during this period (Campbell Hutchinson, 1990, p. 116).

Hotchkiss Price notes that Dürer fashioned his artistic endeavour in order to foster devotion in a quest for salvation. He writes that Dürer believed he was in the possession of a gift from God and that he needed to create devotional aids to assist with salvation (Hotchkiss Price, 2003, p. 280). Dürer’s Knight, Death and the Devil certainly fulfills this goal.

LiteratureAnzelewsky, 1982

Fedja Anzelewsky, Dürer: His Art and Life, translated by Heide Grieve, London: The Gordon Fraser Gallery, 1982.

Eichler, 2007

Anja Eichler, Masters of German Art: Albrecht Dürer, Königswinter: Tandem Verlag, 2007.

Fuga, 2006

Antonella Fuga, Artists’ Techniques and Materials, Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum,


Hotchkiss Price, 2003

David Hotchkiss Price, Albrecht Dürer’s Renaissance: Humanism, Reformation, and the Art of Faith, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2003.

Hutchinson, 1990

Jane Campbell Hutchinson, Albrecht Dürer: A Biography, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton

University Press, 1990.

Metropolitan Museum, 2000-

“Albrecht Dürer: Knight, Death, and the Devil (43.106.2)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art

History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.  (27 September 2010)

Münch, 2005

Paul Münch, “Changing German perceptions of the historical role of Albrecht Dürer” in Dürer and his Culture, eds. Dagmar Eichberger and Charles Zika, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Panofsky, 1955

Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton

University Press, 1955.

Panofsky, 1969

Erwin Panofsky, “Erasmus and the Visual Arts.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld

Institutes, 32 (1969): 200-227.

Strauss, 1973

Walter L. Strauss (editor), The Complete Engravings, Etchings and Drypoints of Albrecht

Dürer. New York: Dover Publications, 1973.

Wolf, 2006

Norbert Wolf, Albrecht Dürer: The genius of the German Renaissance, Cologne: Taschen, 2006.

Jeffrey Fox , University of Melbourne student enrolled in the subject Medieval Manuscripts and Early Print.Edited by Tim Ould, research assistant on this project and PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne.
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