Knight, Death and the Devil is the first of three engravings produced between 1513 and 1514, including Saint Jerome in his Study and Melencolia I (see lots 36 and 37), which have come to be known as the Meisterstiche or 'Master Engravings'. Although Dürer himself in his writings, as far as they have survived, never mentioned the three prints together, and there is no further evidence that they were conceived as a series, they are united by a similar format, a similar date of execution and the concentration on a single figure in a symbolically charged environment. As an overarching theme, the three figures appear to embody three alternative modes of a virtuous life: the active life of the Knight, the contemplative life of the scholar, and the inquisitive life of 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 as to the identity and the meaning of the figure, with indentifications ranging from emperor to pope to heretic and robber baron. Perhaps the most plausible interpretation 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). Dürer might well have intended his portrayal of the christian knight 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 rider 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.
As much as complex moral and spiritual essays, the three Meisterstiche are also proud artistic statements. What binds the three prints together beyond the intellectual concept is the sheer technical ambition with which they were created. It seems that, at the age of 42 and having revolutionised the medium of woodcut, Dürer turned once more to engraving, determined to take this technique also to its limits, to a degree of complexity and perfection ever achieved before and possibly never after. 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 knight: 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.