The artist, his horse, a print, and its audience: Producing and viewing the ideal in Dürer's knight, death, and the devil (1513)

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Abstract

Within the oeuvre of Albrecht Dürer, several works stand out as especially evocative. Laden with visual cues that seem redolent with significance, the images appear almost to hail the viewer and to demand attention and interpretation. Many scholars have hearkened to their call. Dürer's Self-Portrait of 1500 (A. 66; see Figure 12.3) and his engraving Melencolia I of 1514 (B. 74; see Figure 3.1) belong to this category of pictorially enticing images that have provoked widespread critical response; so does the artist's engraving of Knight, Death, and the Devil of 1513 (B. 98; Figure 7.1).1 Like the two former images, Knight, Death, and the Devil combines elements that seem eminently understandable yet remain ultimately enigmatic: a man-at-arms rides through a landscape in which nature is as meticulously fashioned as his suit of armor. And yet, despite the plenitude of elements and details that appeal so seductively to all five senses, their meanings and their relationships to one another remain elusive, almost within our grasp and still unattainable. Even the print's putative title, first used in the eighteenth century, is the result of an attempted interpretation; Dürer himself referred to the print only as "der Reuter" (the rider), an appellation that may well indicate what Dürer considered the main subject to be (a man on horseback), but that gives no hint of any intentionally conceived meaning beyond that.2 Beginning already in the sixteenth century and continuing to the present, viewers' attempts to explain Dürer's tantalizingly naturalistic engraving have generated a body of literary and art historical discourse significant not only for what it might reveal about the print but also for what it unveils about the nature and function of interpretation.3 To a significant degree, these interpretations converge around specific and at times opposing issues. For example, scholars argue about whether the print should be interpreted according to its religious or to its socioeconomic context. Under the former, the writings of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) are marshaled to indicate that the rider stands for the steadfast Christian, girded by his faith, and thus staunch in the face of death and temptation.4 Under the latter, the social and economic decline within segments of the German aristocracy is presented as evidence that Dürer's man on horseback is a renegade knight, for whom death and the devil are familiar companions, not sinister forces to be overcome. 5 Some have read the print as allegorical and iconic; Nietzsche, for example, likened it to "the pessimism of the Teutonic races," while the art historian Wilhelm Waet-zoldt saw it as a manifestation of the Nordic soul.6 Others have understood it as historical and narrative; for example, as a portrait of and commentary on Pope Julius II (pontificate 1503-13) or the Dominican monk Savonarola (1452-98).7 For some scholars, the print reveals Dürer's embrace of Italian models, for others his fidelity to indigenous German traditions. These issues at play in the interpretation of Knight, Death, and the Devil are based on assumptions regarding the significance of national identity, the role of historical evidence, and the function of art. Such issues mark the very boundaries of art historical discourse in its theoretical and practical manifestations and thus underscore the art historical significance of the print that so persistently generates them. This essay does not seek to refute earlier interpretations and does not claim to offer the one, definitive, and correct reading of the engraving. Instead, this essay draws attention to entities in and associated with the print that have previously received insufficient attention: the figure of the horse and the identity of the audience. The first part of my argument makes the case for understanding the horse in Knight, Death, and the Devil as the outcome of Dürer's efforts to construct an ideal figure of a horse, and then for recognizing the artist's mobilization of visual comparison in order to highlight that ideal in the engraving. Therefore, I examine Dürer's prior explorations of such an ideal that will come to find ultimate expression in the 1513 engraving; and I engage his notion of comparison as articulated in Dürer's writings on art and as manifest in the print. The second part of my argument consists of an inquiry regarding the identity of the print's potential audiences. Here I introduce the reception of Dürer's studies and his print in artists' manuals as evidence of the engraving's role in artisanal practice and thus of an important segment of its audience: Dürer's fellow artists and a wider circle of artisans. In addition, I speculate about further reception according to who might have been particularly piqued by the print's visual offerings, especially by its magnificent horse. What this essay adds to literally centuries of discourse that circumscribe Knight, Death, and the Devil is: first, an accentuation of the role of the horse as a significant object of artistic theory and practice, and ultimately of commercial marketability; and second, an emphasis on the engraving's audience and reception. Ultimately, I seek to embrace rather than to bridle the print's multivalent potential.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Essential Durer
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Pages115-129
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780812221787
StatePublished - Dec 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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