Rev. Bror Erickson
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” – Psalm 23:4
In 1513, Albrecht Dürer produced “The Knight, Death and the Devil,” in the wake of his mother’s death. To this day, this copper engraving is recognized as a masterpiece of its genre, but is perhaps more cherished for its spiritual content that prefigured the Reformation teaching of faith alone by several years.
By 1513, Dürer had already attained fame throughout Europe for his work as an artist, and had even secured the patronage of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor and grandfather to Charles V who would receive the defiant words of Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Dürer, who had worked and apprenticed in Venice, had attained this fame by bringing the ideals of the Italian Renaissance with him north to Germany, setting up shop in his hometown of Nuremberg where he took what he had learned in Italy and blended it with Gothic influences and spirituality.
All of these ideals and influences themes converged in this copper engraving through which Dürer displayed his skill with the burin he used to engrave the spiritual distress of his soul onto the copper printing plate.
Copper engraving was a favorite art form of Dürer’s because of the economic benefits of quickly reproducing the product of his many hours of work allowing for massive sales. This was something that could not be done with painting, an art form in which he also excelled. At times he would paint animals on a wall just to watch his dog bark at them. However, the popularity of this engraving shows that Dürer was far from alone in his spiritual distress for which he and many others would find great solace in the work of and writings of Luther in later years. Indeed it captured the sentiments of society then, even as it captures the imagination of people today.
The symbolism is rich. A lone knight travels through the valley of the shadow of death trampling over evil as it flees from him in the form of a lizard scampering in the opposite direction. Death meets him upon his pale horse, and hell follows after-a one-horned goat demon represents the devil. Yet the knight goes forth undaunted, his faith, represented by a loyal dog with his head held high, is his only source of comfort as he nears the fate that meets us all at the end of the road, a solitary skull.
The theme mirrors the distress of the soul often encountered as one confronts his own mortality in the death of a loved one, but Christ is noticeably absent. It seems this distress continued to plague Dürer for many years to come. In 1520, he wrote to thank Elector Fredrik the Wise for sending him one of Luther’s books from which he gained great solace. He even asked the esteemed Elector to protect this man who had given his faith something to believe in, the forgiveness of sins in the death and resurrection of Christ. Now he knew that his faith was not alone, and neither was he alone in his faith. He would fear no evil, as Christ accompanied him, in the preaching of Luther he heard the Shepherd’s rod and staff, a constant comfort in law and gospel. Dürer, despite all his ties to the Emperor and his family from whom he received financial support, himself became a champion of the Reformation.
Rev. Bror Erickson is pastor at Zion Lutheran Church, Farmington, New Mexico.