Albrecht Dürer
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Albrecht Dürer

Knight, Death and the Devil (B. 98; M., Holl. 74; S.M.S. 69)

Albrecht Dürer
Knight, Death and the Devil (B. 98; M., Holl. 74; S.M.S. 69)
engraving, 1513, without watermark, a brilliant, rich and dark black Meder a impression, printing with intense contrasts and much burr in the background, trimmed to or just inside the platemark, slightly irregularly at the right sheet edge, fractionally (circa 2 mm.) into the subject at the lower right corner, the tip of the upper right corner made up, a short, very skilfully repaired tear at the lower left sheet edge, just below the skull, otherwise in good condition
P., S. 247 x 190 mm.
E. Durand (d. 1835), Paris (L. 741); Bénard, Paris, 27 March 1821, lot 436 (FF 120,-).
William Esdaile (1758-1837), London (L. 2617), probably purchased at the above sale; sold Christie's, London, 11 June 1840, lot 106, described as 'Horse of Death' (£ 4-14-6, probably to Hodgson & Graves).
Sir Nigel Broackes (1934-1999), London and Oxfordshire (without mark and not in Lugt); Christie's, London, 20 June 2000, lot 32.
Special notice
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 17.5% on the buyer's premium.
Sale room notice
Please note that William Esdaile probably bought this print in Durand's sale in 1821 in Paris. It was then sold in Esdaile's sale in these rooms on 11 June 1840 as lot 106, for £ 4-14-6, probably to Hodgson & Graves.

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Frédérique Darricarrère-Delmas
Frédérique Darricarrère-Delmas

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Lot Essay

Knight, Death and the Devil is one of three engravings produced between 1513 and 1514, including Saint Jerome in his Study (lot 20) and Melencolia I, which have come to be known as the Meisterstiche or 'Master Engravings'. Although there is no evidence that they were conceived as a series, they are often considered as complimentary due to their related size, time of creation and complex iconography.

There has been much speculation as to the meaning of Knight, Death and the Devil. One explanation is that the scene was inspired by Erasmus of Rotterdam's Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier), first published in 1504. This metaphor of the life militant in the face of sin, the world and the devil, has its origins in the New Testament writings of Saint Paul where he invokes his readers to 'Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes' (Ephesians 6: 11). More recently some scholars have radically re-interpreted the print, identifying the knight as a robber baron in an unholy alliance with Death and the Devil. Dürer himself referred to Knight, Death and the Devil, simply as 'The Rider', thereby leaving much room for ambiguity. Dürer and his contemporaries would have had ample reason to fear errant knights who terrorised rural communities at the time, and one of Dürer's own agents was once waylaid and robbed. This interpretation, however, fails to explain why Dürer clearly casts his rider in the heroic mould, looking to the two great equestrian statues of the Italian 15th Century, Donatello's Gattamelata in Padua and Verrocchio's Colleoni in Venice, for precedents.

Dürer might well have intended his portrayal of the miles christianus or christian soldier to be ambigious, in which virtue is neither intrinsic nor static, but an active choice for the good. The potential for evil is ever present, but Dürer's knight refuses to pay heed to the seductions of the Devil, even in the face of Death. The engraving is a profound meditation on the precarious nature of the moral life in this ambiguous, temporal world.

Knight, Death and the Devil is not only an exploration of spiritual verities, but a technical tour de force in which Dürer, now at the height of his skills, employs his full graphic vocabulary to describe the phenomenological world in minute detail, especially the subtle effects of the light on a multitude of surfaces and textures. Fine, early impressions vary drastically in character depending on the colour of the ink, which can range from jet black to a warm brownish-black to a cooler, silvery hue, and on the extent to which the plate was wiped clean of surface ink.

This brilliant, deep black impression - arguably finer than the more brownish, warmer and less dramatic impression from the Cracherode collection in the British Museum - is printed with intense contrasts, heightening the effect of bright light streaming into this darkened gorge, illuminating the polished surfaces of the knight's armour and the shimmering coat of his steed. The knight's progress seems hopeful - a valiant journey through the present darkness towards the light of redemption.

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