With the completion of the Life of the Virgin and the publication of the four woodcut books in 1511, Dürer had changed the medium and transformed the woodcut from a means of illustration to an art form. In the following year, his attention turned once more to engraving, determined to take this technique also to its limits. He began on a small format by completing his series of the Engraved Passion with a few densely worked plates, characterised by intense chiaroscuro effects and a tonal quality never attempted before in an engraving. In 1513 then, he launched into the creation of his most ambitious works in any medium, the three 'Meisterstiche': Knight, Death and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his Study (see the following lot), and Melencolia I.
Whether these three engravings were initially conceived as a series remains unclear, yet they are united by a similar format, a similar date of execution (1513 and 1514) and the concentration on a single figure in a symbolically charged environment. As an overarching theme, the three figures embody three alternative modes of a virtuous life: that of the knight, the scholar and the artist.
Dürer himself referred to Knight, Death and the Devil, as it is known today, simply as 'the rider', thereby leaving room for much speculation, with the interpretations of the figure of the knight ranging from emperor to pope to heretic and robber baron. There can be little doubt, however, that his knight is a a heroic figure, who fears neither death nor the devil. Today it is the generally accepted view that he represents the ideal of the Christian Knight or 'miles christianus', a concept which stems from the Epistles of Paul, but was revived in Dürer's times by Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1503.
In fine and early impressions, such as the present one, it becomes clear that, as much as a depiction of a spiritual concept, Knight, Death and the Devil is also a formal endeavour. In this print, Dürer developed a whole new vocabulary of graphic means, and with a staggering variety of different lines described the glistening hair of horse, the shaggy fur of the dog, the shining armour, the dull rocks, the spiky bushes, the distant landscape, and most subtle effects of the cold light of winter on a multitude of surfaces and textures. He tried - and arguably succeeded - to depict with mere black lines on paper what had previously only been attempted with the brush and oil paint.
The full extent of Dürer's ambition becomes apparent when one considers the direct precusors to Dürer's rider: Donatello's Gattamelata in Padua and Verrocchio's Colleoni in Venice, the two great equestrian statues of the 15th century, both of which Dürer had seen on his journeys to Italy. With this engraving, he was not just competing with painting, but with sculpture - and with two of the most revered artists of the Italian renaissance.
It is the complexity and intellectual depth of the subject, the unrivalled technical mastery with which Dürer executed it, and the sheer ambition and confidence that drove him, which make Death, Knight and the Devil one of the most impressive and desirable works in the print medium.