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The Knight, Death and the Devil

Albrecht Dürer

European Art

In Knight, Death, and the Devil Albrecht Dürer imagined an armored rider encountering two gruesome apparitions: a putrefying figure of Death brandishing an hourglass as a reminder of life’s brevity and a horned and snouted Devil. Like Melencolia I, this is an ambiguous image that has inspired several interpretations. Most frequently, the main figure is described as a heroic Christian knight, an embodiment of moral virtue, who has no fear of Death or the Devil. However, a contradictory reading suggests that the knight may have been understood in Dürer’s time as one of the many so-called robber-knights who terrorized the burghers and merchants of Nuremberg and other cities. In this interpretation the Knight is not afraid of the two fearsome entities because he is actually in league with them. There are no obvious Christian symbols in the image, but other emblems suggest duplicity, such as the foxtail attached to the end of the knight’s lance. Foxes were symbols of trickery, and “foxtail bearer” was a term for a hypocrite.

Although Dürer made each of the three master engravings on view here as an independent work, scholars have wondered if they are somehow thematically linked. It has been suggested that they might represent different modes of virtue or faith in medieval and Renaissance eras—contemplative in Saint Jerome, militant in Knight, Death, and the Devil, and artistic in Melencolia I.
MEDIUM Engraving on laid paper
DATES 1513
DIMENSIONS Image: 9 5/8 x 7 1/2 in. (24.5 x 19 cm) Sheet: 10 x 7 7/8 in. (25.5 x 20 cm)
SIGNATURE Signed with monogram in plate
COLLECTIONS European Art
MUSEUM LOCATION This item is not on view
ACCESSION NUMBER 54.35.6
CREDIT LINE Gift of Mrs. Horace O. Havemeyer
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