Knight, Death, and The Devil: Christian Faith & the Virtue of Single-Mindedness

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 if I ever saw the original in the Dürer Haus in Nürnberg, I know I have seen copies in many other venues–each time being struck by its complexity of detail, yet single-minded theme.

The engraving itself is a master work: the technical precision is exact, the composition is ingenious, the medieval symbology rich, and the theme, universal. Dürer displays his artistic expertise in the exactitude with which this engraving is executed. At the same time the theme and the symbolism present us with a world that is, on the one hand realistically depicted, yet, on the other, deeply allegorical and mysterious. Here, the natural world, in fine-grained detail, and the spiritual realm are woven together as if they truly do coexist as one interlocking reality. That which we experience sensibly in the mundane (e.g. the sinew of the horse’s muscles, or the thicket sprouting out of the cliff face), are presented in the same mode as that which we sense is real, yet which remains obscured from us (e.g. the devil), or is simply ineffable (e.g. death, or even the passing of time).

As with any work of this magnitude, interpretations have been mixed, ranging from those who suggest the the Knight is a “Raubritter” or robber knight, who, in his avaricious treasure hunting, is actually abetted by Death and the Devil; to those who see the Knight as a metaphor for the virtue of “sanguinity.”1 This interpretation is grounded by the fact that an “s” is engraved on the Tafel in the lower left-hand corner. However, it is hard to see how the Knight represents sanguinity, especially considering what that “humor” classically was meant to represent. If there is one of the four humors that we would want to associate the Knight with, it would clearly be the Choleric, not the sanguine. Unfortunately, the image of the Knight was tragically appropriated, not only by Nietzsche, but also by Nazi propagandists, who wrongly saw in the figure a picture of Aryan stalwartness. For Nietzsche, however, it was a northern European attempt, one of the finest attempts, to return to the glories of Hellenism and pre-Christian ideals of power and creativity.

But, these interpretations are not only anachronistic, they are antithetical to Dürer’s original intent. That is not to say that powerful artistic symbolism cannot rightly be interpreted in later cultural contexts, but the predominant interpretation that has endured over the centuries, and the one that most likely approximates to Dürer’s own mind, is that of the Christian sojourner, who, while tempted on all sides, remains singularly focused on his divinely ordained mission. It is not just the obvious portrayal of the Knight as the Christian warrior, and Death and the Devil as the Christian’s persistent enemies (see Matt 4:1-11, Luke 4:2-13 & Romans 5:12-17), but also the image of the “city on a hill” (Matt 5:14) that sits strong and stately above the tangled and desolate wilderness below, that draw us into this world of biblical themes adapted to a medieval context.

It is within this symbolic world, amidst the solidity of the city, the detailed, yet dark countryside, and even the grotesque strangeness of both the zombie-like visage of Death and his beast-like counterpart, that ultimately our Knight and his steed become the center point of our mind’s focus, and our eyes’ gaze. The posture of our Knight, his uprightness; the rugged, almost Aslan-like power of the horse (also a bit anachronistic, I admit); and even the simple faithfulness of our Knight’s dog: they all combine to evoke in the viewer, especially the Christian viewer, a feeling of single-mindedness and perseverance in the face of our only real adversaries; enemies that are “not of flesh and blood” (see Ephesians 6:10-14).

Finally, our focus is ultimately drawn most tightly to our Knight’s face, his unwavering gaze, an image which perhaps reminds us of Christ’s own single-mindedness regarding the rescue operation commissioned to Him by the Father: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.” (Mark 10:33) It is Christ’s unwavering gaze toward Jerusalem, that will fulfill the greatest mission ever conceived.

It is that single-mindedness, that self-sacrificial commitment to the highest good, union with God and the proclamation of the Good News, that not only preserves our Knight from falling into the temptation to fear Death, or to succumb to the wiles of the Devil, but that also motivated our spiritual forefathers to endure the tortures of the world, in all their forms and varieties:

32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:32-40

And, it is this same single-mindedness that can give the Christian today the resources to do the same–to endure not only the physical tortures, as many of our brothers and sisters in the East must do, but also the desperate times that come when emotional tragedies strike. How will we be, not just act, when our marriage is on the line, when the lives of our children are in jeopardy? How will we fight, when we are slandered and slurred, when injustice is served up against us? When we are made fun of, lose our jobs, and face betrayal from friends and family? Will we lose our focus on Christ? Will we forget our mission? Will we turn our gaze toward our spiritual enemies, finding bewilderment in their distractions and machinations, and steer our horse off of the path to the Kingdom of God?

No, the Christian must look forward, in single-minded pursuit of the Messiah, just as Paul did from his own prison cell: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil 1:27) , or as Peter did, perhaps only weeks before his own death in Rome: “Therefore, as Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same resolve–because the One who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin–in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.” (1 Peter 4:1-2)

Finally, single-mindedness for Christ and His Kingdom should not be confused with narrow-mindedness or close-mindedness. Our Knight’s eyes remain wide open, he is no blind fool, nor ignoramus. Nothing of his countenance nor anything in his form suggests pettiness or triviality, bitterness, anger, or contempt (unless, perhaps, contempt for his two enemies). Thus, we can see our Christian Knight perhaps as Kierkegaard might have seen him, as one whose will is set on one thing2 Kierkegaard wrote a famous penitential sermon entitled “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing”, and in setting that will on the right thing, God’s will, we can imagine our noble Sojourner not just passing by our worldly foes, but exiting stage left and fulfilling his divine mission: the attainment of a pure heart.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8)

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