The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

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The Knight (Knight, Death and the Devil) Albrecht Dürer

  • Curator’s description:

    Description

    The mounted knight fills the foreground, whilst Death rides beside him clutching an hourglass. The Devil appears on the right, behind the knight's horse, in the form of a grotesque animal. The knight is accompanied by a dog. A lizard lies beneath the horse's feet, and a skull sits on the tree-stump in the bottom right corner.

    Although Cook & Wedderburn (XXI.16, n. 5) wrote in 1906 that 'Frame 9 is now blank, Ruskin having afterwards removed the plate', it appears that the print was later reinstated in exchange for several leaves from Ruskin's "Psalter of St Louis" (the Psalter and Hours of Isabelle of France, no. 6 in the Standard Series, and no. 13 in the Rudimentary Series, now reconstituted and preserved in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, as MS 300).

    Ruskin used the engraving to make both moral and practical points. In the "Catalogue of Examples" it stood as 'An example of perfect delineation by the school of chiaroscuro' - although Ruskin always favoured delineation by colour over chiaroscuro. In "Ariadne Florentina" (§ 37 = XXII.323), he pointed out the way the grass beneath the raised foot of the knight's horse had been used to conceal Dürer's initial placing of the foot, which he subsequently revised but did not burnish out: this demonstrated that engraved lines should be 'conclusive; not experimental'. (Ruskin made the same point in a note to "Modern Painters", Vol. V, pt ix, ch. 4, § 16 = VII.310-11) In the preface to "The Eagle's Nest", the figure of the knight was described as one of only four Dürer figures which had not been rendered useless for teaching drawing by his insistence upon displaying his knowledge of anatomy. (All the other engravings - "Melencolia", "St Eustace" and "St Jerome in his Study" - are also in the Teaching Collection.)

    Ruskin's views on the picture's symbolism seem to have changed. In the fifth volume of "Modern Painters" (pt ix, ch. 4, § 16 = VII.310-11) he described it as a work praising fortitude, in which he identified the figure of the Devil as 'sin powerless: he has been conquered and passed by'. Whilst the knight hears Death, he accepts his message rather than being frightened by it. By the time he wrote the "Catalogue of Examples", however, for Ruskin the print no longer symbolised human patience triumphing over sin and death, but 'Nemesis': it portrayed the patience of Death and the Devil, rather than of the knight. However, Ruskin also noted that the image was ambiguous - but no less valuable as a didactic work for that. Its 'majesty' was a result of a typically northern 'strange fear and melancholy' which 'took ... a feverish and frantic tendency towards the contemplation of death' and 'brought a bitter mockery and low grotesque into ... art', embodied by Dürer ("Abbeville" Catalogue, § 24 = XIX.260). He also included an impression of the print in the Museum of the Guild of Saint George (R.79.b; see Cook and Wedderburn, XXX.163).

  • Details

    Artist/maker
    Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528) (engraver)
    Object type
    print
    Material and technique
    engraving on laid paper
    Dimensions
    249 x 193 mm (sheet); 378 x 241 mm (original mount)
    Inscription
    In the print, engraved, on a plaque, bottom left: S·1513·|AD [the 'AD' in Dürer's characteristic monogram]

    On the mount, recto:
    top centre, in ink: 69.
    bottom, to the left, in graphite (recent): B.VII.106.98 (Duplicate)
    bottom, to the right, in graphite: S.9

    On the mount, verso:
    top, in graphite, partially obscured by hinges: One of the Things received in exchange for the St Louis leaves
    bottom left, in graphite (recent): Transferred from Ruskin School of Drawing | B
    Provenance

    Presented by John Ruskin to the Ruskin Drawing School (University of Oxford), 1875; removed by Ruskin; Joan Severn; presented by Joan Severn c.1904 in exchange for six leaves from the Psalter and Hour

    No. of items
    1
    Accession no.
    WA.RS.STD.009
  • Subject terms allocated by curators:

    Subjects

  • References in which this object is cited include:

    References

    Hollstein, F. W. H., German Engravings Etchings and Woodcuts, ca. 1400 - 1700 (Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, 1954-), cat. vol. VII, p. 69, no. 74

    Meder, Josef, Dürer-Katalog, ein handbuch über Albrecht Dürers stiche, radierungen, Holzschnitte, deren zustände, ausgaben und wasserzeichen (Wien: Gilhofer & Ranschburg, 1932), no. 74

    Bartsch, Adam von, The Illustrated Bartsch, founding editor Walter L. Strauss, general editor John T. Spike (New York: Abaris Books, 1978-), no. 1001.98

    Ruskin, John, ‘References to the Series of Paintings and Sketches, From Mr. Ruskin's Collection, Shown in Illustration of the Relations of Flamboyant Architecture to Contemporary and Subsequent Art’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 19

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Reference Series Including Temporarily the First Section of the Standard Series (London: Smith, Elder, [1872]), cat. Standard no. 9

    Ruskin, John, ‘Lectures on Art: Delivered Before the University of Oxford in Hilary Term, 1870’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 20

    Ruskin, John, ‘Ariadne Florentina: Six Lectures on Wood and Metal Engraving. Given Before the University of Oxford, in Michaelmas Term, 1872’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Words on John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 22

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Works of John Ruskin’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), vol. VII, plate D (opposite p. 310)

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of Examples Arranged for Elementary Study in the University Galleries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1870), cat. Standard no. 9

    Bartsch, Adam von, Le Peintre Graveur, 21 vols (Vienna: J. von Degen, 1803-1821), cat. vol. VII, pp. 106-8, no. 98

    Schoch, Rainer, Mende, Matthias, and Scherbaum, Anna, Albrecht Dürer: das druckgraphische Werk, 3 (Munich/London/New York: Prestel, 2001-2004), no. 69

    Ruskin, John, ‘Modern Painters’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 3-7

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford: Catalogues, Notes and Instructions’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 21, cat. Standard no. 9

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Eagle's Nest: Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art, Given Before the University of Oxfored, in Lent Term, 1872’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 22

Location

    • Western Art Print Room

Position in Ruskin’s Collection

Ruskin's Catalogues

  • Ruskin's Catalogue of Examples (1870)

    9. Knight and Death. (Dürer.)

    An example of perfect delineation by the school of chiaroscuro.

    This plate has usually been interpreted as the victory of human patience over death and sin. But I believe later critics are right in supposing it to be the often-mentioned Nemesis; and that the patience and victory are meant to be Death’s and the Fiend’s, not the rider’s.

    The design itself, which is the one referred to in the second Lecture (§ 47), is not rendered less didactic by its ambiguity. The relations of death to all human effort, and of sin to all human conscience, are themselves so ambiguous that nothing can be rightly said of either unless it admits of some counter-interpretation. Nevertheless, I believe Dürer’s real meaning is not only established by recent enquiry, but sufficiently indicated by his making the tuft on the spear, for catching the blood, so conspicuous. Had he intended the knighthood to be sacred, the spear would have had a banner, as always in his engravings of St. George.

  • Ruskin's Standard & Reference series (1872)

    9. Knight and Death. (Dürer.)

    An example of perfect delineation by the school of chiaroscuro.

    This plate has usually been interpreted as the victory of human patience over death and sin. But I believe later critics are right in supposing it to be the often-mentioned Nemesis; and that the patience and victory are meant to be Death’s and the Fiend’s, not the rider’s.

    The design itself, which is the one referred to in the second Lecture (§47), is not rendered less didactic by its ambiguity. The relations of death to all human effort, and of sin to all human conscience, are themselves so ambiguous that nothing can be rightly said of either, unless it admits of some counterinterpretation. Nevertheless, I believe Dürer’s real meaning is not only established by recent inquiry, but sufficiently indicated by his making the tuft on the spear, for catching the blood, so conspicuous. Had he intended the knighthood to be sacred, the spear would have had a banner, as always in his engravings of St. George.

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