A Dog in Dürer’s Etching “The Knight, Death and the Devil” by Marco Nevi

A Dog in Dürer’s Etching “The Knight, Death and the Devil”

Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer was born in Nuremberg, a Free Imperial City of the Holy Roman Empire in 1471. He died aged 58, also in Nuremberg. He was a famous printmaker in his time and travelled across Europe. His work mainly consists of engravings and woodcuts. The Knight, Death & The Devil was printed in 1513, though apparently Durer called it simply “The Knight”.

The engraving shows an armoured knight on a horse, leading another horse. The knight is flanked by a rotting corpse holding an hourglass and the Devil. Behind him on a hill is a fortress and beside the horse is a dog. 

The knight looks straight forward, undistracted by the corpse, the devil or even the dog. 

The elements in the picture represent a Medieval European morality. The knight is not tempted or swayed by the Devil or cowed by his inevitable death. He continues on his journey. The critic Gary Shapiro said the knight signified resolute determination in the absence of hope.

Marco Denevi

Marco Denevi was born in 1922 in the town of Sáenz Peña a suburb of Buenos Aires in Argentina. He died in Buenos Aires in 1998. He studied law but went to work in an insurance office where he wrote his first novel in snatched hours. His writing bought him enough success that by 1968 when he was 46, he gave up the insurance trade and became a full time author and essayist. Denevi was the author of novels and short stories, some of which were made into films. He won several prizes for his work.  

Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the translator of this piece by Denevi. He was born in Buenos Aires in Argentina, but moved to Canada. He is an award winning author of both fiction and non-fiction as well as a translator, editor and essayist. When he was young he worked in a bookshop in Buenos Aires and there met Jorge Luis Borges. 

A Dog in Dürer’s Etching “The Knight, Death and the Devil”

This is a wonderfully Gothic story. It mainly concerns a knight returning home from a nameless war (as Denevi says: all wars are basically the same war), coarsened and wizened looking forward to days of peace with his wife, his salmon and his lute in his castle, apparently under the pleasant illusion that all will be waiting for him much as it was before he left.

We have a nice interlude where the band of soldiers are travelling through a gothic forest where the trees are all bearing the terrible, but appealing to some, fruits of war. The minstrel imagines that the knight’s suit of armour its empty and that the knight whom the soldiers had trusted to save them from death is not really there.

But then we return to the main point. Wars are games of chess played by little kings, popes and emperors to advance their petty ambitions. The knight will be forgotten by history, we are told. Then we are given access to the knight’s musings that perhaps his otherwise pointless efforts in the war in which he has spent his life will be remembered and honoured with land and titles by the little kings. 

As he thinks of this, the dog approaches.

The knight, or Denevi, considers that peasants and dogs do not even really know there was a war, much less what it was about, and in fact it was about nothing other the game of chess played by little kings and popes.

The knight considers how he may have, by his actions, have spun a web to snare the fly kings to make them help him. He ponders that God may be pretty similar to the dog, in that he does not even know there was a war and is oblivious to the aims and ambitions of the popes and kings.

The theme of the story seems to be about perspective and how those who are considered lowly, like the dog, may know the important stuff like how the knight is infected with the plague and not only is he not going to enjoy the fruits of his life’s work at war, but he will probably bring the plague home to kill everyone at home.

A cheery tale, but beautifully written and conceived like a gothic fable.

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 Music by The Heartwood Institute

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