I sometimes wonder what it means to be the hero in one’s own life story. How might we lead a virtuous and dignified life despite hardships? This is not an unusual question in any sense. Cultures across time and in different places have wrestled with this moral question.
Albrecht Dürer, the Printmaker
Born in Germany during the late 15th century, Albrecht Dürer was one of many artists interested in asking moral questions during the Renaissance period. He was an accomplished painter and draftsman, but many of his greatest works are in the medium of printmaking. He pushed printmaking to new heights and legitimized it as an independent art form.
One of his greatest print series is the “Meisterstiche” or master engravings, which are a group of three images: “Saint Jerome in His Study,” “Melancholia,” and “Knight, Death, and the Devil.”
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, these three prints were “intended more for connoisseurs and collectors than for popular devotion,” suggesting that the prints’ symbolism was specific to a limited audience. The specific meanings behind these three prints still stump scholars today.
With that said, we will look only at “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” which corresponds to notions of morality in the philosophy of medieval scholasticism. Our intention isn’t to decipher what the connoisseurs and collectors in the 1500s thought about the symbolic imagery but to see if this image stimulates moral questions for us today.
‘Knight, Death, and the Devil’
In “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” Dürer depicts four prominent figures: the Knight riding a horse, Death also on a horse, the Devil, and a dog.
The Knight is in full armor as if he is ready for battle. He holds a spear and steadies it against his shoulder. With his other hand, he grasps his horse’s rein. He looks directly in front of him as his horse walks forward. A dog follows closely beside the Knight’s horse.
Compositionally, Death is to the left of the Knight. Death wears a crown with entangled snakes and holds an hourglass in his hand. He also sits on a horse that bows its head toward a skull on the tree stump ahead of the Knight. Death looks directly at the Knight.
The Devil watches the Knight intensely from behind. Dürer depicts the Devil as a chimeric monster: He has goat-like ears, ram horns, a rhinoceros-like horn on the back of his head, a wolf-like snout with a pig nose, and long jowls hanging from both sides of his mouth. He holds a sharp weapon in his hand and reaches out for the back of the Knight with his other hand.
The jagged rocks and gnarly trees of the mountainous terrain suggest a difficult journey. Off in the distance, however, we can see a castle against the sky at the mountain’s peak.
The Moral Hero
I think it’s evident that the Knight is on a journey, but a journey to where? What is his relationship to the other figures on this journey, and how might this relationship inform us morally?
Let’s first start with what these figures might symbolize. I think the Knight is our moral hero. He is in full armor with a spear, not to fight off mortal enemies, I believe, but to protect himself against Death and the Devil on his journey.
Death, with his mouth agape and the hourglass in his hand, seems to almost sneer at the Knight. It’s as if he warns the Knight, “Your time is almost up, and you’ll be subject to me, king of the dead.” Death’s horse also bows down toward the skull on the tree stump as if to bring the Knight’s attention to it.
The snakes on Death’s crown are an interesting addition by Dürer. Snakes were traditionally symbolic of both life and death. In the Christian tradition, however, snakes became associated with both Death and the Devil, and the Devil’s purpose was to undermine God and tempt humans. Thus, the snakes depicted here likely associate Death with the Devil and temptation.
Interestingly enough, the Knight doesn’t look at Death; that is, he is not “tempted” by the fear of Death. He is not concerned that his time is limited. His helmet appears to prevent him from looking at Death even if he wanted to. Instead, the Knight looks straight ahead and continues his journey.
The chimeric appearance of the Devil suggests the Devil’s ability to take on different forms to achieve his ends deceptively. The Devil reaches out to grab onto the Knight from behind. The Knight appears not to notice, which also suggests how crafty and deceptive the Devil can be.
The Knight appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place—that is, between Death and the Devil—and this feeling is enhanced by the rocky and gnarly terrain.
Or does the Knight’s demeanor suggest something different? His calm and stoic appearance might mean that he is unfazed by Death and the Devil.
The dog beside the horse may be symbolic of loyalty, but loyalty to what? Loyalty to the Knight, most likely. Thus, the Knight represents the moral hero, that is, the one who remains unaffected by temptation (the Devil) and fear (Death) for the sake of completing a journey.
Perhaps, the fact that the Knight has passed the Devil suggests that he has already overcome the Devil’s temptations, and the fact that his helmet blocks the view of Death indicates that he is unconcerned with Death. The Knight’s unaffected and calm demeanor even diminishes the perceived power of Death and the Devil.
Is it then the case that being a moral hero on the journey of life consists in fearlessly ignoring temptation?
And what is the destination of this journey? The castle seems to be a place of peace relative to the rest of the image. It even appears to be a place of light and glory compared to the darker, gloomy environment below. Does this suggest that a peaceful mind and heart is the destination? If so, then true peace requires heroic effort.
The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.