For an example of Renaissance visual art, I’m choosing an engraving done by my favorite artist of the period, Albrecht Durer.
While Durer’s work covered the whole spectrum of visual art forms – as might be expected of one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance – he specialized in engravings. He used both wood and copper for his work in this medium. Among Durer’s most famous engravings are a series of 3 works, done in copper by his own hand, in the early 1500’s. I’d like to focus on the second of these, a work that I find particularly fascinating both in conception and execution.
Knight, Death, and the Devil first saw the light of day in 1513, in Nurnberg (modern Nuremberg), Germany. The work was completed at a time when Durer had just recently begun service as an artist to Maximilian I of Germany. However, no commission was responsible for the creation of the work. Durer crafted it purely from inspiration.
This engraving exemplifies perfectly Durer’s use of symbolism and unwritten themes in his art. Various devices – some obvious, some subtle – convey a number of messages that are open to interpretation by the viewer, but without question the overall tone is one of grimness, solemnity, and doom. It strikes me anew every time I view it and attempt in vain to grasp the message.
I believe this work also reflects the humanism thought of the time. After all, the subject and central character of the work is the knight, and the storyline that is captured in this scene revolves around the struggle and ultimate fate of the knight. And indeed, it has been suggested that the inspiration for the knight may have come from Durer’s familiarity with the work of the humanist scholar Erasmus, who in his 1504 book Instructions for the Christian Soldier penned a vivid passage of the ideal religious warrior.
Although many meanings have been teased out of this work, it is first and foremost a fascinating and grim allegorical depiction. I consider it to be among the finest examples of the visual arts that may be found from the entire Renaissance period. Durer’s skill in arranging the many symbols in this work and ability to work in fine detail keeps me coming back every so often to see what new things I myself can discover in it.
“Albrecht Dürer: Knight, Death, and the Devil (43.106.2)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/43.106.2 (October 2006)
Albrecht Durer. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/174214/Albrecht-Durer/1950/Second-journey-to-Italy (June 2012)