A knight in armour on his magnificent charger makes his way through a rocky gorge. It is a hostile environment with barren, broken trees, thorny shrubs and a human skull placed on a tree stump, as if in warning. Two figures stand by the wayside, as if emerging from the rocks; King Death with snakes winding through his crown, astride an old mare, holding an hourglass; and a monstrous devil standing on his hoofs, holding a pike.
Countless attempts have been made to identify the central figure which Dürer simply referred to as der Reuther ('the rider'). Suggestions have included emperor, pope, heretic, Germanic hero and local patrician. None of the potential candidates, either historical or mythological, have been substantiated. The knight as robber baron - a genuine threat in the days of Dürer - is also lacking visual evidence. The precursors of Dürer's rider are the two great equestrian statues of the Italian 15th Century, Donatello's Gattamelata in Padua and Verrocchio's Colleoni in Venice, both of which Dürer had seen, and - much closer to home - the Rider of Bamberg Cathedral. Whatever his true identity - if 'identity' he has - Dürer's rider is clearly cast in the heroic mould, a model of courage and moral strength, the Christian Knight, who does not fear Death or the Devil.
The present impression is one of the finest to come on the market for many years. It is a prime example of an early impression as described by Joseph Meder, who observed that in this engraving Dürer did not always strive for strong contrast, but rather for more subtle, tonal and atmospheric effects. He describes the earliest impressions as schwarz oder bräunlich, kräftig, mit Grat im Hintergrund, auch tonig, Kontraste weniger beabsichtigt. ('Black or brownish, strong, burr in the background, occassionally with tone. Less attention given to contrast.')