albrecht durer knight death and the devil
A visual feast and technical marvel, Albrecht Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil caused a sensation in 16th century Europe and still inspires awe today. But do you know the secrets hidden in its scratches?
Death had lingered around Dürer since he was a child. Of his 17 siblings, only two lived to adulthood. Outbreaks of disease urged him to write, “Anyone who is among us today, may be buried tomorrow,” and, “Always seek grace, as if you might die any moment.” Death was a very real and constant threat for the artist, whose devotion to his faith also meant he greatly feared damnation. Knowing this preoccupation, an observer could read Knight, Death, and the Devil as one of the artist’s more oblique self-portraits.
A sundial, mounted on top of the hourglass, casts its shadow on five while the volume of sand in the upper-half of the hourglass suggests that the rider has already spent half of his allotted time on earth. Death’s horse, its left ear pointing up and its right ear level, lowers its head and looks towards a human skull that sits on top of a tree stump.
The engraving depicts a procession of earthly and supernatural beings travelling along a mountain pass from the right-hand-side of the frame to the left while the high-gabled roofs, crenellated walls and lofty towers of a citadel are visible in the distance. A horseman, wearing plate-armour and resting a lance on his shoulder, is riding a powerful charger in the company of two monstrous figures that are considered to be manifestations of Death and the Devil.
Austrian 19th-century art historian Moritz Thausing suggested that Dürer had created Knight, Death and the Devil as part of a four-work cycle, each designed to illustrate one of the four temperaments. According to Thausing, the work was intended to represent sanguinity, hence the “S” engraved in the work. 
According to Elizabeth Lunday the “skeletal figure of death stands ghostly pale against the darkness of a shadowy crag, while the devil, a multihorned goatlike creature, skulks amongst straggly tree roots.”  Death is shown with his horse in the left background and rendered without nose or lips in lighter shades than the other figures.  A skull is seen in the lower foreground, directly in the Knight’s path, whilst a dog is running between the two horses.
The meticulous attention to the horse’s musculature, the engaged and contracted tendons, all represent Dürer’s mastery of equine proportion. Dürer also employs light and shadow to illuminate the figures and the surrounding scene. Art historians, Gaillard Ravenel and Jay Levenson note, ‘Dürer presented his ideal horse against a dark landscape background, but, as a result of its darker tones and competing figures, the horse does not stand out without comparable prominence’ (Ravenel et al 1971, p.144).
Henrich Wölfflin, The Art of Albrecht Dürer, London 1971.
However, more recent studies challenge the interpretation of the ‘Christian Knight’, pointing out that it overlooks the social and political context of Dürer’s time. Historical documentation refers to the phenomena of Robber Knights, who attacked and louted dealers and merchants, threatening trade and finances of cities such as Nuremberg (Dürer’s place of birth and principal place of residence). Evidence of Dürer’s contempt for these figures may exist in an earlier artwork, Death and Landsknecht (1510). In the 1510 woodcut, Death confronts the indifferent Knight, who appears unconcerned by the ominous encounter. The woodcut is accompanied by a poem written by the artist, in which he warns those who do not pay their dues in this life. If indeed the knight in Knight, Death and the Devil is a ‘Robber Knight’, the devil and death are not his adversaries, but rather his companions. In this case, the knight could be seen as passive or compliant. The contrary interpretations of the knight also impact the analysis of other details in the engraving, such as the foxtail attached to the tip of the knight’s lance. In the context of the ‘Christian Knight’ interpretation, the foxtail can be seen as a good luck charm. In contrast, according to the ‘Robber Knight’ analysis, the foxtail can symbolize the trickery and the cunning nature of the fox.
Knight, Death and the Devil (1513), is one of Dürer’s most famous and most complex artworks that has been subject to much debate among art historians. At the heart of the controversy is the figure of the knight, and his symbolic function and meaning. Frequently, Dürer’s knight was interpreted as a symbol of moral virtue, an embodiment of the ideal of the ‘Christian Knight’. Following this interpretation the knight is a stoic figure, unfazed by the devil and the monsters that try to entice him. The knight is protected by his armor, and accompanied by his dog, a symbol of loyalty. Some have tied the conception of the engraving to the Handbook of a Christian Knight, written by the Dutch humanist, Erasmus of Rotterdam. It was also suggested that the knight could have been modeled after several historical figures, including Martin Luther, Pope Julius II and Franz von Sickingen, a German knight and important figure of the early period of the Reformation.