Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), in addition to being an excellent painter, draftsman, and creator of perceptive naturalist watercolors, is generally acknowledged as the greatest practitioner of the medium of engraving. The son of a goldsmith, Dürer began as a maker of woodcuts for book illustrations in his native Nuremberg. Deeply curious about the ideas and working methods of Italian artists, he made two trips to Italy, once in his early twenties and once in his mid-thirties; lessons learned there immediately influenced his works. Dürer’s success in marketing his woodcuts and engravings in the first two decades of the sixteenth century established his reputation and fame across Europe at a time when very few artists were individually known. Later, his fascination with proportion led him to become an art theorist, publishing his own treatises in the 1520s.
The Master Prints have long sparked the debate among viewers that Dürer undoubtedly intended when he devised them (perhaps in consultation with humanist friends in Nuremberg), and nearly five centuries of thinkers have attempted to unravel their meaning. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Dürer created the three prints as a series to be marketed together, as he did with many of his prints, they date from a period in his career when he ceased altogether to paint or make woodcuts, focusing exclusively on realizing his artistic ideas in engravings, and all three show a similar intellectual complexity. Dürer’s contemporaries also grouped them in this way and collected them together. They are almost identical in size, and each features a skull, a dog, and an hourglass. The three prints also gravitate together because no specific narrative, biblical or otherwise, intrudes in any of them to dictate a specific reading. Taken out of this narrative continuum, they provide a feast of symbols and visual details to stimulate discussion and astonish the eye.
The prints are also linked because they have long been seen to stand for the three modes of virtuous living: active, contemplative, and intellectual. Knight, Death, and the Devil is generally seen as epitomizing the active life—the Christian knight bravely facing the perils of the real world. There is evidence in Dürer’s own letters that his engraving was inspired by the writings of the great church reformer Erasmus of Rotterdam; Erasmus’s Enchiridion Militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier), first published in 1502, calls on the Christian to be a combatant for God in an inhospitable world, with faith as his chief weapon. Dürer’s knight is assailed by the devil, a hideous composite of various animals, and Death, a rotting corpse who holds an hourglass as a reminder of life’s brevity. But the knight and his mount are unswervable from their narrow path through the dark valley, and the magnificent horse dwarfs Death and the Devil, showing their feebleness in the face of faith. The oak leaves twined in the horse’s mane and tail further symbolize fortitude.1 The knight’s armor is also emblematic of the rider’s faith, and resonates with the many military metaphors to be found in scripture, like St. Paul’s exhortation to believers to “put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11).2 The fortress on the mountaintop signals the ultimate goal of the Christian’s earthly journey—the Kingdom of Heaven.
The sense of the knight’s undeterred passage is strengthened by Dürer’s presentation of horse and rider in strict profile; they are completely unconcerned with, and perhaps even unaware of, the forces arrayed to stop them.3 The knight’s helmet acts as a sort of blinder, blocking the figures of Death and the Devil from his sight. Even the dog, a retriever and therefore bred to go swiftly to its quarry, points out the correct path with its nose. Because the morally upright knight progresses in his journey of faith from right to left, anything facing in the reverse direction is suspect; the lizard skittering to the right between the horse’s hind feet may be a symbol of sin, and is thus incapable of seeing the correct way. In addition, the skull on the stump at lower left, while a memento mori on the one hand, is also perhaps turned in the wrong direction as a reminder that those who stray from the righteous path cannot attain eternal life.
The great horse also shows Dürer’s profound interest in the Italian Renaissance, and, specifically, his fascination with proportion. The horse is drawn according to mathematical formulae possibly observed from Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for the Sforza monument in Milan, which was never completed, and closely resembles the bronze equestrian monument to Bartolommeo Colleoni, sculpted by Verrochio, Leonardo’s teacher, which Dürer had seen in Venice.4 This compositional reference to the august tradition of equestrian monuments, dating back to ancient Rome, gives the mounted knight a further authority that underscores the strength of his faith.
As has often been observed, Dürer’s Knight, Death, and the Devil is centered around an unlikely union: a German, Gothic knight mounted on an Italian Renaissance horse.5 This juxtaposition results in a fascinating balance between the chivalric and religious ideal promoted by the knight, a vestige of the Middle Ages, and the ideal perfection of the horse, with its reference to Italian artistic ideas that Dürer admired. Dürer’s engraving bridges these two eras, making a statement about the power of collective belief, but does so through an idealized expression of individual vigor and resoluteness.
St. Jerome in his Study exemplifies the contemplative life, showing the great pillar of the church and translator of the Bible into Latin hard at work, sealed off from the world in this simple but cozy room. In fact, Dürer emphasizes the room, rather than St. Jerome himself, an unusual choice and a deviation from his previous depictions of the saint.6 The scene is framed by the heavy stone column at left, the massive ceiling beam above, and the step below which puts St. Jerome on a slightly elevated plane above us. Atop this step lies St. Jerome’s familiar, the lion, simultaneously an imposing guardian figure and a humble beast, who, according to legend, approached St. Jerome in the wilderness to remove a thorn from his paw. Ranged around the room are objects common to any study—books, a chest, letters, and a pair of scissors—and those that make reference to St. Jerome’s himself, such as the lion, and his cardinal’s hat, which hangs above his head, making reference to Jerome’s election as pope and acting as a sort of second halo. The largest and surely strangest of these attributes is the marvelously rendered gourd that hangs from the ceiling beam. As Peter Parshall discovered, the gourd refers to a famous debate between St. Jerome and St. Augustine over the translation of the Hebrew word kikayon, which in the Old Testament describes the vine that God caused to grow up to protect Jonah after he had been cast up by the whale. Jerome translated it as the Latin hedera, or ivy, instead of the more commonly accepted cucurbita, or gourd.7 Aside from alluding to this debate and the intense picture it paints of Jerome as a learned man, however, Dürer may also be using Jonah’s gourd to indicate St. Jerome’s similar divine favor.
Melencolia I, the only print of the three which Dürer expressly titled—indeed, the only engraving Dürer ever titled in the plate—has been seen as a meditation on the life of the creative individual. During the Renaissance, personality traits were believed to be governed by a balance—or imbalance—among four so-called humors in the human body: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Those persons with an excess of black bile were prone to melancholy, a temperament associated with artistic creativity. Here, the female personification of Melancholy sits brooding, surrounded by objects that make reference to human creativity and in particular to the discipline of geometry, which at this time was seen as the underlying language of all creative pursuits, including drawing, painting, sculpture, and architecture. The perfect sphere and the stone rhomboid, but also the carpenter’s tools and the magic square in the wall (in which any row of numbers, horizontal, vertical, or diagonal, adds up to thirty-four), are all related to geometry and its ability to measure space and time. Perhaps most telling of all are the dividers, or compass, that Melancholy holds ineffectually in her right hand; female personifications of geometry in the Middle Ages and Renaissance frequently hold such an instrument, but it is also a reminder of God, the great geometer, measuring out the heavens and the earth with his divine compass. Faced with this supreme creative act, the figure of Melancholy, and by extension, Dürer himself, cannot help but feel inadequate and dejected.
Dürer wrote on a preparatory drawing for the print that “keys mean power, purse means wealth.”8 Therefore, the purse and keys that dangle from Melancholy’s belt seem to hint at the uselessness of wealth and power to the creative artist who is prevented, by a melancholic temperament, from acting and achieving them.9 When set against the more straightforward pairing of the Knight and St. Jerome, Melencolia I remains all the more mysterious, one of the earliest and most complex statements about the artistic temperament in Western history.