Monday, April 13, 2009

The Most Heroic Knight

Yesterday I pointed out a number of ways in which cowardly knights who can scarcely face down an unarmed snail are the antithesis of the heroic Hercules who defeated the Nemean lion. Even more mythically heroic is the magnificent Knight of Christ in Albrecht Dürer's copper engraving, The Knight, Death, and the Devil. Rather than being plagued by inconsequential gnats like the Leber-Rouen Fool, or even a bulletproof lion like Hercules, this knight's adversaries are mankind's two greatest foes. This description from The British Museum is directly to the point.

‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil' (Psalm 23), could be a caption for this engraving. The horseman is the 'knight of Christ', a phrase that Dürer was to use of his contemporary Erasmus of Rotterdam, who had written a Handbook of the Christian Soldier in 1501. Death is at the horse's feet in the form of a skull, beside the plaque with Dürer's monogram. Death is also the ghastly corpse without nose or lips, who holds a hourglass up to the knight as a reminder that his time on earth is limited. The knight rides on, looking neither to the right, left, nor backwards, where the Devil, with an ingratiating grin, seems powerless while ignored. High above this dark forest rises a safe stronghold, apparently the destination of the knight's journey.

The Metropolitan Museum Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History amplifies that description, (as do endless other commentaries on this print).

Called simply the Reuter (Rider) by Dürer, Knight, Death, and the Devil embodies the state of moral virtue. The artist may have based his depiction of the "Christian Knight" on an address from Erasmus's Instructions for the Christian Soldier (Enchiridion militis Christiani), published in 1504: "In order that you may not be deterred from the path of virtue because it seems rough and dreary … and because you must constantly fight three unfair enemies—the flesh, the devil, and the world—this third rule shall be proposed to you: all of those spooks and phantoms which come upon you as if you were in the very gorges of Hades must be deemed for naught after the example of Virgil's Aeneas … Look not behind thee." Riding steadfastly through a dark Nordic gorge, Dürer's knight rides past Death on a Pale Horse, who holds out an hourglass as a reminder of life's brevity, and is followed closely behind by a pig-snouted Devil. As the embodiment of moral virtue, the rider—modeled on the tradition of heroic equestrian portraits with which Dürer was familiar from Italy—is undistracted and true to his mission.

This virtuous Christian Stoicism is also the ideal being put forth in the Tarot trump cycle. Worldly temptations of Love and Triumph, both of which confer dominion (husband over wife, victor over vanquished) must be moderated with Justice, giving to each their due. The inevitable reversals of Time and Fortune must be met with Fortitude. Ultimately, Betrayal and Death can only be overcome by the mixture of water and wine, the sacraments alluded to in Temperance. Temperance, like the sacraments, is an act of faith in the hope of resurrection. St. Paul combines these ideas in 1-Corinthians 15:29-32.

Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized for them? Why also are we in danger every hour? I die daily, I protest by your glory, brethren, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord. If (according to man) I fought with beasts at Ephesus, what doth it profit me, if the dead rise not again? Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Paul fought a lion in Ephesus, not a snail. But his point is that we are temperate, rather than eating and drinking to excess, for the same reason we honor the sacraments—because tomorrow we shall die and such virtue is our only hope for resurrection to glory.

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