‘Knight, Death, and the Devil’ elevated this artist to a Renaissance master

Master of oil and watercolor painting as well as ink drawing, German artist Albrecht Dürer made his greatest impact in yet another medium: printmaking, which he elevated to a fine art through both woodcuts and copperplate engravings. In 1513 he made “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” the first of three intricate engravings that became known as his meistersticheor master prints.

Italian influences

Born in Nürnberg (in modern-day Germany) in 1471, Dürer was profoundly influenced by his Italian Renaissance contemporaries, including Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci.

(Depictions of the devil terrified European Christians in the Middle Ages.)

After returning from a second trip to Italy in 1507, Dürer received a series of important commissions. In 1512 he became court painter to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and the following year he began working on “Knight, Death, and the Devil” and the other two engravings in the Meisterstiche series. According to Jeffrey C. Smith, Kay Fortson Chair in European Art, at the University of Texas, Austin, Dürer “relished the intellectual challenge” of the engravings, and devoted a year of his busy life to their execution. Dürer’s challenge, according to Smith, was to act as “an artistic and intellectual bridge between the North and Italy.”

In “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” Dürer combines his German heritage with the Italian focus on classical form, perspective, and proportion. His work depicts a steadfast knight on horseback accompanied by his faithful dog. (The four bronze horses of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice are said to have been an inspiration.)

The knight and his dog pass the perils of the world: a monstrous devil, and death—who is depicted as a grotesque figure astride a sickly horse and holding up an hourglass. The engraving depicts the chivalric and religious ideals of the Middle Ages while accurately portraying human and animal bodies according to Italian precepts that would become inseparable from Renaissance art.

Using a V-tipped gouging tool called a burin, which he learned to use in his goldsmith father’s workshop, Dürer created astonishing varieties of texture in the knight’s armor and leather boot, the fur of the dog, and the horse’s lustrous coat. For many art historians, the technical skill he demonstrated in this work has never been equaled.

Dürer’s woodcut prints were popular and could be mass-produced, yielding as many as 2,000 impressions. Engravings such as “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” meanwhile, were printed in 100 to 200 impressions, which made them more expensive but still accessible. This popularity made Dürer one of the first artists to become a brand name; he even placed a monogram, AD, on most of his work. In his lifetime, he produced a total of 100,000 to 200,000 impressions.

(This artist shocked 17th-century Italy with her work.)

Dürer’s woodcut prints were popular and could be mass-produced, yielding as many as 2,000 impressions. Engravings such as “Knight, Death, and the Devil,” meanwhile, were printed in 100 to 200 impressions, which made them more expensive but still accessible. This popularity made Dürer one of the first artists to become a brand name; he even placed a monogram, AD, on most of his work. In his lifetime, he produced a total of 100,000 to 200,000 impressions.

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