Anthony Costello on Single-Mindedness in Dürer's Ritter, Tod, und Teufel
Few works of art have gripped me over the years and accompanied me through the vicissitudes of life more than the 1513 engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Ritter, Tod, und Teufel (Knight, Death, and the Devil). Although I cannot recall ever seeing the original, I have seen copies, and each time I’ve been struck by its complexity of detail, yet single-minded theme: a theme that resonates deeply with the devoted servant of Christ.
The engraving itself is a masterwork—the technical precision exact, the composition elaborate, the medieval symbolism rich, and the theme universal. Dürer’s artistic skill is evident in the exactitude with which the engraving is executed. This precision in detail allows a symbolic world to emerge that is thoroughly realistic on the one hand, yet profoundly allegorical and mysterious on the other. Here, the natural world and the metaphysical realm are woven together in one interlocking and seamless reality. The elements that we experience sensibly (e.g., the horse’s sinewy calf muscles or the thicket sprouting from the cliff face) are presented in the same mode as the ones that remain mostly obscure to the senses (e.g., the devil) or are simply ineffable (e.g., death or the passing of time).
Moreover, there is no grotesquerie to be found in Dürer’s masterpiece. Here, light and dark, good and evil are clearly distinguishable and properly relegated to their distinct visual and metaphysical spheres. While death may be ugly and the devil bestial, there is nothing Bosch-like in this medieval work—no hyperextended or distorted limbs, no admixtures of animal and human forms, no macabre sense of contrary things, like the sacrilegious and the religious, being mashed together into some unholy alliance. Just as God separated light from darkness in the beginning, so here the artist keeps them separate. Any observer who fails to see that the Knight represents the Good, and that his two stalkers represent the corrupt, simply makes an error in perception.
The Singularly Focused Knight
As with other works of this magnitude, the interpretations of this engraving have been mixed, ranging from suggestions that the Knight is a Raubritter, or robber knight, who in his avaricious treasure-hunting is actually abetted by Death and the Devil, to the idea that the Knight is a metaphor for the virtue of sanguinity. The Knight’s image has even been appropriated by those with far less noble intent than he: first by Nietzsche, and later by Nazi propagandists, who wrongly saw the figure as either a picture of pre-Christian Hellenistic ideals or Aryan stalwartness.
But these interpretations are not only anachronistic, but are antithetical to Dürer’s original intent. This is not to say that earlier artistic symbolism cannot, in part, be contextualized for contemporary audiences, but the predominant, historical interpretation that has endured over the centuries, and that likely approximates to Dürer’s own thought, sees the Knight as the Christian sojourner who, though tempted on all sides, remains singularly focused on his divinely ordained mission. There is even evidence to suggest that Dürer was influenced by Erasmus’s work Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook for the Christian Soldier) in the creation of this engraving.
In his distinctive style, Dürer draws us into a vast world of biblical themes adapted to a medieval context. We see this not just in the foreground imagery, which presents the Knight as a Christian warrior beset by Death and the Devil, the missionary’s eternal enemies (see Matt. 4:1–11; Luke 4:2–13; Rom. 5:12–17), but also in the background imagery, which depicts the “city on a hill” (Matt. 5:14) sitting strong and stately above the tangled and desolate wilderness below.
Within this symbolic world our minds wander, longing to arrive at that fortress city as we make our way through a menacing countryside. Hopefully, we experience repulsion at the grotesque strangeness of the zombie-like face of Death and the beast-like visage of the Devil, and prefer to turn our mind’s focus and our eyes’ gaze upon the Knight and his trusted steed. Our soldier’s upright posture, the dangerous, yet controlled power of his horse, and even the loving faithfulness of his dog all combine to evoke in the viewer, especially the Christian viewer, a sense of single-mindedness and perseverance in the face of man’s only true enemies, enemies “not of flesh and blood” (see Eph. 6:10–14).
Finally, our focus is drawn to our Knight’s face and that unwavering gaze, an image that reminds us of Christ’s own single-mindedness as he set his face toward Jerusalem to fulfill the greatest rescue mission ever conceived, the one commissioned to him by the Father (Mark 10:33) and carried out for the sake of men’s souls.
Keeping Our Focus on Christ
This single-mindedness, this self-sacrificial, steadfast commitment to the highest good—union with God and the proclamation of the Good News—not only keeps Dürer’s Knight from succumbing to the fear of Death or the wiles of the Devil, but also motivated our spiritual forefathers to endure the tortures of this world, in all their forms and variations (Heb. 11:32–40). This same virtue of single-mindedness can give Christians today the resources to do the same, to endure not only the physical tortures of outright persecution, as many of our brothers and sisters in the East do, but also to persevere through the desperate times when emotional tragedy strikes, and strikes hard.
For how will we be, and not just act, when our marriages are on the line, or when our children’s lives are in jeopardy? How will we fight when we are slandered and slurred, and injustice is served against us? When we are made fun of, lose our jobs, or even face betrayal from close friends and family? Will we lose our focus on Christ? Will we forget our mission? Will the machinations and intrigues of our spiritual enemies distract us? Will we stray from the path and head off into the desolate wilderness, losing sight of that “city on the hill”?
No. By the grace of God we will not. Instead, we will look forward in single-minded pursuit of Christ, just as Paul did from his prison cell (Phil. 1:27), and John Bunyan and Maximilian Kolbe did from theirs.
Finally, however, this virtue of single-mindedness for Christ and his kingdom should not be confused with narrow-mindedness. Our Knight’s eyes remain wide open; he is neither blind fool nor ignoramus. Nothing in his countenance or in his form suggests pettiness, bitterness, anger, or contempt (except, perhaps, contempt for his two adversaries). Thus, we see our Christian Knight as Kierkegaard might have seen him, as one whose will is set on one thing, and one thing only (see his famous penitential sermon, “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing”). And with his will set on the right thing, the will of the Father, we can imagine our noble sojourner not just unperturbedly passing by his worldly foes, but exiting stage left, toward fulfillment of his divine mission: the attainment of a pure heart and entrance into the eternal city.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8).
Anthony Costello holds a B.A. in German from the University of Notre Dame, and Master's degrees in Christian Apologetics and Theology from the Talbot School of Theology/Biola University. An Evangelical, he also served 5.5 years in the US Army, with one deployment to Afghanistan.