knight death and the devil
Knight, Death and the Devil (German: Ritter, Tod und Teufel) is a large 1513 engraving by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, one of the three Meisterstiche (master prints)  completed during a period when he almost ceased to work in paint or woodcuts to focus on engravings. The image is infused with complex iconography and symbolism, the precise meaning of which has been argued over for centuries.
In 1968 the Argentinian publisher Galerna published a volume in their book series “Variations on a Theme“, the theme of this volume being Dürer’s engraving.  Among the authors asked to write was the Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote a poem entitled “Ritter, Tod, und Teufel (I)”. Borges later wrote another poem named “Ritter, Tod und Teufel (II)”, published by Atlántida.  In the first poem he praises the knight’s courage, writing, “Being / brave, Teuton, you surely will be / worthy of the Devil and Death.”  In the second he compares his own state to the knight, writing, “It’s me and not the Knight that the old, white-faced man, head crowned with writhing snakes, exhorts.” 
Snake-shrouded Death and the goat-faced Devil speak for themselves. But the work is loaded with other symbols. The knight’s shining armor is believed to signify his solid Christian faith. The hourglass in Death’s hand represents man’s mortality. The foxtail speared on the knight’s lance and kept behind him stands for lies, while the dog running alongside represents veracity and loyalty. The scurrying lizard hints at coming danger. The skull near the bottom may mean death is ahead.
Despite Dürer not seeing them as a series, s ome art experts claim Meisterstiche illustrate attributes of medieval scholasticism: theological, intellectual, and moral. Others posit each relates to a stage of mourning “from stoicism (Knight, Death, and the Devil‘s), to denial (Saint Jerome in His Study) to nightmarish despair (Melancholia I)” in a reflection of Dürer’s grief over his mother’s death in 1513.
Religious devotion is the leading interpretation of the Knight, Death and Devil. Art historian Jeroen Stumpel writes that ‘the horseman can probably be 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 by the devil’ (Stumpel 2013, p.258). Dürer himself referred to this engraving as Reuter, which means rider. It is widely believed, as Charles Talbot notes, that ‘Hermann Grimm, in 1875, introduced the opinion that the idea for the knight, threatened by Death and the Devil, was inspired by [Desiderius] Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani or “Handbook of the Christian Solider,” which was first published in 1504’ (Talbot 1971, p.143). Devoted Christians, in the service of God, would have seen this engraving as a call to faith, warning them against external temptations.
Gaillard Ravenel, Jay Levenson, ‘Catalogue of Prints’ in Charles Talbot (ed.), Dürer in America: His Graphic Work, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Art Washington, District of Columbia 1971, pp.111–98.
Erasmus was a theologian and humanist from the Netherlands and was in his early 40s when this engraving was created. Philosophical by nature he had published the book some 10 years earlier and it was one of the key things that the Dutchman is remembered for. The plot of the story is an appeal to Christians to act and remember their faith during life.
The artist’s horse is a feature of the work that shows a link to da Vinci and is a reflection on both the period and Durer’s huge interest in anatomy and natural sciences. The body is masterfully rendered by geometric shapes to create a powerful image of the animal.
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.