Symbolism of Albrecht Durer's "Master Engravings"

Topics: Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, Engraving Pages: 5 (1625 words) Published: October 8, 1999
Albrecht Durer completed the "Master Engravings" in the years 1513 and 1514. With these three engravings (Knight, Death, and Devil, St. Jerome in His Study, and Melencolia I) he reached the high point of his artistic expression and concentration. each print represents a different philosophical perspective on the "worlds" respectively of action, spirit, and intellect. Although Durer himself evidently did not think of the three as a set, He sometimes sold or gave St. Jerome and Melencolia I as a pair.

In the engraving, Knight, Death, and Devil, it appears that the hero (the Knight) is gaining a moral victory over death. (Fig. 1) The Knight has often been interpreted as Erasmus's sturdy Christian soldier who scoffs at death and the devil as he goes about God's work in his journey through life. The conception of the ‘Christian soldier' embodies and ideal of manly virtue which the traditional instincts of the Germanic race, German mysticism and Northern versions of Renaissance ideals all contributed to form.

The Horse is represented in full profile as to show off it's perfect proportions; it is forcefully modeled so as to give its perfect anatomy and it moves with regulated step of the riding school so as to give demonstration of perfect rhythm. The fact that a beautiful setter is running by the side of the horse completes the picture of the Christian man as known to the Late Middle Ages – the man who armed with faith and accompanied by religious zeal, symbolized by the faithful hound goes on his way along the narrow path of earthly life menaced by Death and the Devil.

From the gloom of this "rough and dreary scenery there emerge Death and the Devil. Death wears a regal crown and is mounted on a meager, listless jade with a cowbell; but he is even ghastlier in that he is not depicted as an actual skeleton but as a decaying corpse with sad eyes, no lips and no nose. Death also has snakes encircling his head and neck as he slides up to the Knight and tries in vain to frighten him by holding up an hourglass while the swine-snouted Devil sneaks up behind him with a pickaxe. Their failed attempt to capture the rider's attention conveys the idea of unconquerable progress.

The 1514 engraving of ‘St. Jerome in his Study' is chronologically approximately in the middle of the group, but it shows the deepest penetration of the subject. (Fig. 2) The Saint has ceased to be a legendary figure and has become the symbol of learned existence and felicity. St. Jerome is working at the far end of the room, which in itself gives the impression of remoteness and peace. His little desk is placed on a large table which otherwise holds nothing but an inkpot and a crucifix. Engrossed in his writing, he if blissfully alone with his thoughts, with his animals, and with his God. The cell, which in previous versions was always more or less cave-like, cold and drear, has now become a warm, comfortable, Late Gothic study; the lion is now really a household pet, blinking peacefully, with a dog asleep at his side. The landscape element is restricted to the morning sun shining in at the window and intimated by the great gourd, transformed into a household plant. Even this harmless gourd has not escaped the attention of the learned seekers after hidden meanings. Wustmann disinterred the ‘Book of Nature' by Konrad von Meggenberg, published in 1500, and with its aid explained the gourd as a ‘mellow, ideal fruit; the struggles of its period of bloom are forgotten and it is the symbol of the Saint who has renounced the world.' The skull has been relegated to the windowsill, where it has no more importance than the books or the cushions. The slippers, pushed carelessly aside, give a pleasing suggestion of bachelor habits to the otherwise tidy room. The cardinal's hat hangs on the wall and the gray head of the silent writer is encircled with a halo. Everything breathes peace – even the little tablet bearing...

Bibliography: Panofsky, Edwin. The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer. 4th ed. Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1955.
Waetzoldt, Willhelm. Durer and His Times. translated by R.H. Boothroyd. London:
Phaidon Press Ltd, 1950.
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