On Knighthood

Ritter, Tod und Teufel (Knight, Death, and the Devil) Dürer

On display this summer at the Carnegie Museum of Art, nearby St. Paul Cathedral, is a 500-year-old image of a Knight in full armor, riding along a narrow path atop a magnificent horse. To his side, the horrific figure of Death taunts our hero with an upheld hourglass, while a similarly sickening Devil carries a long spear behind the Knight, scanning his armor for weaknesses to exploit.

The print, one of three so-called “Master Engravings” by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, impresses us with its technical accomplishment while inviting those “with eyes to see” into a deeper, spiritual meditation. The image evokes primal if conflicted emotions, with an allegory readily relatable to viewers. We see, in essence if not in historical detail, our own Christian journey of life on Earth.

Gazing upon the scene, one senses an almost overpowering revulsion (perhaps even sick fascination) at the corporal decay and spiritual annihilation manifested by these ghoulish, roadside bandits. If we brave the horror show, however, gradually we re-focus on the Christian Knight at center, and discover inspiration in his holy forbearance. In this “valley of the shadow of death,” somehow from his steady manner and bold visage, we know this Knight will survive. Clearly, the man has work to do!

Strong and steadfast, the Knight rides forward, choosing not to engage the inked ghouls on pulpy paper. Rather - crucially - he keeps his eyes calmly fixed on the way ahead.

Above the Knight, in the distance, we discern a stately castle on a hill. Secular interpreters have called this a “Palace of Virtue.” Religious-minded see the castle as Heaven, or the final Salvation for our Knight. I find both explanations compelling on their own terms. I would hasten to add, however, that just outside the frame a broader story is being told.

Following his gaze down the path, by grace we witness the Knight’s true companion, his leader on this pilgrimage: Jesus our Lord. Further, we see the Knight at the vanguard of a vast, ecclesial caravan, stretching over millennia. Through Mother Church en route, Jesus guides the faithful Knight on mission in the world, Spirit-filled, before his ultimate return to the everlasting embrace of the Father.

How might such a Christian Knight appear now? Naturally, the details differ from one century to the next. Today, for example, he could be an Army officer on leave in Pittsburgh for the summer, a nurse working the late shift at UPMC, an engineer with 30 years at Westinghouse, or a software designer for a Pitt/CMU-based startup. He could be a seminarian from St. Paul Cathedral, a retiree, an art student, or a refugee.

What remains the precisely same, however, is his moral bearing and laser focus on Jesus. Part of the vast pilgrimage of the Church on Earth, the Christian Knight moves onward, ready in his unique way to testify to God and to contribute to the up-building of the Kingdom.

One concrete expression of this chivalrous service here at the Cathedral in Pittsburgh is the esteemed Order of the Knights of Columbus. We are blessed with an energetic, welcoming Council comprised of men of diverse ages and backgrounds, united by our love of God and passionate desire to serve Mother Church in the world.

If you are a Catholic man aged 18 or older, and the notion of charitable service in fellowship with other dedicated Knights moves you to action, then consider yourself called!

The Dürer print entitled “The Knight, Death, and the Devil” (“Ritter, Tod und Teufel”) is on display at the Carnegie Museum as part of the “Small Prints, Big Artists” show until September 15th, 2014. Be sure to see the brilliant “St. Jerome” print, as well.   P.S., G.K. 14474.