By Elizabeth Garner Copyright January 2014
The print called Knight, Death and the Devil by art historians was named by Dürer himself as “Der Reuter”-the Rider and created and dated in 1513. It has been considered one of the three of Dürer’s great “meistersttiches” (masterpieces) along with the engravings St. Jerome in the Study and Melencholia I. It was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite prints; Hitler insisted that this print embodied the nationalistic pride of the Aryan race and represented the Teutonic superiority of the Germans.
While the man riding the horse is dressed in armor and is most likely at least of the social status of a knight or higher, Dürer would have called this print Der Landsnecht, the German word for knight, if he was truly representing just a knight.
But he didn’t. He specifically indicates that this armored figure is “riding” solo by the title. His title selection doesn’t even give an inclination as to who the other figures are in the composition or why they are there unless the figures have something to do with a lone rider.
Neither are the other two figures actually depictions of “Death” or of the “Devil.” The figure known as “Death” on the left holding the hourglass is a very fleshy figure wearing a crown with slithering creatures, who happens to be missing a nose. The figure on the right has only one horn and holds a weapon of war, a pike, which is not how devils were depicted in medieval times.
The linkage of the three above mentioned prints has occurred for so long that hardly any one has ever questioned whether this linkage theory is correct: that these 3 prints are linked in meaning in some way or whether the actual mechanical technique or artistry in this print is really so masterful.
Der Reuter has no connection with the other two prints in any way. All are heavily encoded prints but Melencholia I and St. Jerome in the Study are paired and must be decoded together, Der Reuter is actually very subtle but subversive political statements about the subjects they represent.
If we first analyze Dürer’s references to this print in his Netherlands Journey Diary of 1519-1521, we find that there are very few references to this print at all. This is a strange factoid if Dürer considered this print to be of tremendous value to him. After all, he was specifically attempting to retrieve his pension from the new Emperor Charles V, and if this print was so special to Dürer, we would expect to find that he gave or sold this print often. The facts indicate the opposite. Below is the actual analysis of what Dürer did with KDD during his trip:
On November 24, 1520 in Antwerp, Dürer sold to an unknown print dealer a number of his prints where Der Reuter is actually named. This is the first of only two times the print is referred to by name.
On 2-11-1521 Dürer sent Rudiger von Gelern (an unknown person) Ein gestochen Reuter (KDD) (an engraved The Rider)
Dürer gave the three Faktors of Portugal a complete set of his prints, which would have included Der Reuter.
Dürer sent “Margarthe” (the Regent Margaret, Emperor Maximillian’s daughter-the actual ruler of the realm and warden of the underage Emperor Charles V) all of his prints. This would have included Der Reuter.
On 7-3-1521, Dürer “set out from Brussels on the King’s business (King Christian of Denmark)- and he gave the King “die besten stuck aus mein ganczen truck for 5 gulden” (the best of all my work for 5 gulden). We don’t have proof that Der Reuter was among this gift but we will assume so to prevent any controversy from the art world that would deflect from unraveling the true meaning of his print.
So, in total, we have 1 print sold to a print dealer for resale (in Antwerp-not a place where the theme of a German mercenary knight might have been popular) and 5 times the print was included in a gift of ALL prints to important personages. As opposed to the specifics that Dürer writes in his Netherlands Diary about to whom and when he gave St. Jerome in the Study, Melencholia I, the Four books (Large and Small Passion. Life of the Virgin, and the Apocalypse) and other named prints, there is little evidence to support the idea that Dürer himself considered this print of any major importance, except as commercially saleable in Germany.
Let’s look at the symbols that are actually in this print.
- In the center is a mercenary knight (which we know from his armor) on top of a horse in the woods. The figure of the knight is flat and sideways as is the horse. The art historians have already determined that the knight was traced from a workshop drawing Dürer had in his inventory. The armor is correct and unremarkable, meaning that there is nothing unusual about the armor depicted-it is accurate.
- The horse is rigged up with normal riding tack for the period. There is nothing unusual about the riding gear. There are oak leaf clusters in the top of the bridle and tied into the top of the tail of the horse. This was the standard German way of indicating that the hunt was successful-tying oak leaf clusters to the head and tail of the horse.
- The Knight holds a long lance with the pelt of some unidentified animal over his right shoulder. Again, there is nothing unusual about this depiction.
- Dürer has used a tablet for his monogram and date in the lower left corner. The tablet says “S 1513.” The date is accurate, the meaning of the “S” is unknown but speculated to stand for the Latin word Salus or Salutis –which means salutation. Dürer has monogrammed the print. The tablet rests against a dead tree stump with a skull resting on the tree stump.
- The landscape background is unremarkable. It depicts that the Knight is in the woods, with many dead trees represented. There is castle or fortress in the background.
- Underneath the Knight is his faithful hunting dog depicted in a sideways manner-again indicating that it was probably traced. This dog is NOT a hunting dog used by nobility, such as a greyhound, nor is this dog similar to other dogs Dürer included in other prints. It’s a regular hunting dog.
- We now come to the interesting unusual symbols in the prints. First, directly under the back end of the Knight’s horse and dog is a horned lizard pointing to the right while the rider, horse and dog are moving to the left. It is very strange for a horned lizard to be depicted in a forest.
- The figure normally considered “Death” which is riding the horse who’s head is lowered is directly behind the Knight and covered up by the Knight’s horse. The Devil is intimately connected with the Knight since the Devil’s face is directly looking at the Knight.
- The following are the salient features of Death which are the encoded symbols which identify who this “Death” figure really represents:
- Death wears a crown
- Death is “noseless” while the rest of the body of the Death is intact
- Death has two slithery reptiles on its figure, which are different reptiles. Around it’s neck is a reptile with a larger head than the one in the crown. The neck reptile is a conger. The reptile in the crown is an eel.
- Death prominently holds up an hourglass, which is not an ornamental hourglass as is the hourglass in Melencholia I. The dial prominently features the time as registering the hour “5.” For the hourglass to be registering an hour of 5, this proves that the print is representing a summertime period (July and/or August) for it would be impossible for an hourglass to register such a “time” if the season was different. We will show that the “5” on the dial is actually representing the number “12,” which, along with the noseless feature, the eel, and the crown, identifies exactly who this figure is. It is NOT Death per se, although the Knight would have considered this figure as “Death”, for “Death” is the arch enemy of the Knight.
- This leaves us with the “Devil” at the hind end of the horse. This figure has a single horn, two side curly horns under the ears, a prominent protuberance on it’s head, very porcine features, and carries a pike weapon. It is significant that the Devil is placed at the horse’s butt end. Once the Knight and Death are identified, there were only two other significant personages that the Devil could represent in the story. The porcine features identify which of the two the Devil really represents.
For what Knight, Death and the Devil truly depicts is the second most humiliating event in the life of Emperor Maximillian, which is why this print was named Der Reuter. Dürer did this out of spite, because Maximillian had forced Dürer to work for him in 1513 for a year and never paid him and did not put Dürer in charge of the artistic project that Dürer was forced to work on in 1513-Maximillian’s Triumphal Arch.
And so, out of spite, Dürer struck back at the Emperor by enshrining this second humiliation (the first having been captured in the print the Sea Monster) and selling it to the public commercially, making money off of it. This is how Dürer got himself paid for the unpaid work done for Emperor Maximillian.
So what does this composition REALLY represent? Emperor’s Maximillian’s humiliation was as a “ sole volunteer Rider” when he sold himself off to Henry the VIII as a mercenary for 100 gulden/day because the Germans would not back him financially at the 1513 Second Battle of Guinnegate.
DETAILS OF THE BATTLE OF GUINNEGATE
The Battle of Guinnegate took place on August 16, 1513 as part of the War of the League of Cambra
The Belligerents: France vs the Kingdom of England and the Holy Roman Empire
The French Commander: Jacques de la Palice, troop strength: 7000
The English Commander: Henry the VIII: troop strength: 30,000
The Holy Roman Empire Commander: Emperor Maximillian-the sole Rider volunteer to henry VIII, given command of part of Henry VIII’s 30,000 troops.
The outcome: the French were routed.
The Battle of Guinnegate or Battle of the Spurs took place on August 16, 1513. As part of the Holy League under the on-going Italian Wars, English and Imperial troops under Henry VIII and Maximilian I surprised and routed a body of French cavalry under Jacques de La Palice.
The enemies of France decided to make simultaneous demonstrations against her from various quarters. The treacherous Ferdinand (of Spain) assumed a menacing attitude on the frontier of Aragon ; Henry VIII landed with 20,000 men at Calais; the Swiss, flushed with their recent triumphs, invaded Franche-Comte. The English army advanced in August, 1513, and sat down before the walls of Terouanne. They were here joined by the eccentric Emperor Maximilian, who, after contracting to serve in the ranks as a volunteer at the rate of 100 crowns a day, soon contrived to gratify his vanity by assuming the direction of the operations of the siege.
A French force was dispatched to relieve Terouanne, under the orders of the Duke of Longueville, grandson of the gallant Dunois, and the illustrious Bayard. The two armies met on the 16th of August, between Terouanne and Blangis, when, after a brief encounter, the French gendarmerie consulted their safety by a flight so precipitate that the day has become known in history as the “Battle of the Spurs.” Longueville, Bayard, La Palisse, and other superior officers, after vainly striving to arrest the panic-struck fugitives, were compelled to surrender themselves prisoners of war. The capitulation of Terouanne followed, after which the allied sovereigns proceeded to Tournay, and obtained easy possession of that city; but a dispute with the vainglorious Maximilian now determined Henry to return to England, and the campaign abruptly terminated. It was in the course of this same summer that the faithful and almost the only ally of Louis, James IV. of Scotland, was totally defeated and slain on the fatal field of Flodden.
The English army was provided by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and combined several different types of martial forces, and included cavalry, artillery, infantry, and longbows using hardened steel arrows designed to penetrate armour more effectively. The French forces were mostly companies gendarmes and pikemen with some other mixed forces as well.A story suggests that the French ran so fast that only their spurs could be seen over the dust. It was also named after the first Battle of the Spurs, which was fought in 1302 near Courtrai, Belgium, between the rebellious Flemish towns, led by Bruges, and an army sent by Philip IV of France, who had annexed Flanders in 1301. The French were totally defeated. The spurs taken from the fallen French knights formed so prized a trophy that they gave the battle its name.
The redoubtable French gendarmerie was for the first time completely broken, and fled from the field in irretrievable disorder. The discomfited marshals forthwith abandoned Lombardy, with the loss of their cannon and more than half their army; and the duchy of Milan, with the exception of two or three fortresses, was again lost to France in a shorter space than it had taken to regain it.
In PART II WE WIL EXPLAIN THE WHOLE PRINT and how each symbol depicts this scandal