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Engraving; 1513. Signed in the plate with the artist’s monogram and the date. Bartsch 98, Meder 74, Schoch, Mende and Scherbaum 69. An extremely fine Meder A impression, without watermark as cited by Meder for this classification. While Meder’s analysis of the printing history of Dürer’s graphic output served brought new interest to this highly complicated issue, much of his analysis has recently been questioned. In the case of our engraving, it is now clear, – even if Meder was unaware of this point – that the plate suffered slight corrosion at the lower right corner, resulting in a series of small pits in the surface which printed as very small black dots in this area. Early impressions should now be divided into impressions before the corrosion marks and those after these dots. Our impression is one of the very rare impressions before the corrosion marks, and thus among the earliest impressions printed. Our examination of impressions of the engraving in American and European public collections shows that many are rich and dark but clearly with the corrosion marks. In general, impressions with the corrosion marks are less sharp and the shadowed areas can be unclear. Meder’s analysis of the printing history of the plate is useful only in a limited sense.
In very good condition; a tiny repair at the very tip of the upper left corner, and a slight horizontal printer’s crease. The surfaces fresh. This impression shows the deep anthracite colour of the shadows typical of very early impressions. Printed with delicate tone, notable especially in the upper zone of the image where the thorny trees stand out against the sky. The middle area of the image, the rocky ledge across which the Knight travels, and the Knight’s armour and his horse are defined with brilliant, steely clarity, picking out the various textures of armour, horse flesh and rocky shadows. The gruesome forms of the monstrous apparitions who menace him reveal themselves in sharp, frightful detail.
Dürer’s magnificent engraving technique is never more evident than here. The sharpness of contrasts and vivid depiction of surfaces essential to the visual impact of the engraving are all manifest. The horse’s coat glistens brightly, and thus detaches itself from the background figure of Death and the Devil. The armour of the Knight is sharply metallic; each element of the image then enlivens the composition and defines the spatial relationships crucial to the coherence of the engraving. In this respect, the lower left corner where the artist placed his famous monogram, often somewhat lightly printed, is here richly inked, anchoring the front plane of the image and thus enlivening the spatial recession of the narrow space implicit in the composition.
One of the most famous graphic images of the Renaissance in Germany, this engraving has been endlessly studied and interpreted, especially as to the identity of the armoured rider. Names proposed have included the mythic hero Siegfried, Franz von Sickingen, Ulrich von Hutten, and Martin Luther and Emperor Maximilian among others.
It is fair to say that the Knight, accompanied by his faithful dog, travels past us unconcerned by the fearsome sight of Death and his hourglass, the clear reminder of mortality, and the horned monster, the Devil himself. The rocky landscape, the blasted trees, and distant castle remind the viewer that the Knight’s path is lonely and dangerous.
Regardless of the identity of the Knight, the theme of heroic fortitude in the face of danger and evil, so boldly conceived, has made this engraving one of the most celebrated in the history of art. Dürer’s thematic interests are here served by his superb command of the medium of engraving.