|Dimensions||24 cm × 18.8 cm (9.4 in × 7.4 in)|
Melencolia I is a 1514 "engraving by the "German Renaissance artist "Albrecht Dürer and is one of the most well-known "old master prints. The enigmatic print involves references to astrology, alchemy, numerology, carpentry, geometry, and measurement. There is a great deal of writing about the work, but it has resisted any definitive interpretation; art historians often suggest that, in general terms, Dürer is relating "melancholia with creative activity.
Melencolia I has been the subject of more interpretation than probably any other print. As the art historian "Campbell Dodgson wrote in 1926, "The literature on Melancholia is more extensive than that on any other engraving by Dürer: that statement would probably remain true if the last two words were omitted." "Erwin Panofsky's writing has been most influential. Melencolia I is one of Dürer's three Meisterstiche ("master prints"), along with "Knight, Death and the Devil (1513) and "St. Jerome in His Study (1514). The three prints are considered thematically related by some art historians, each depicting a labour that is either intellectual, moral (Knight), or spiritual (St. Jerome). While Dürer sometimes distributed Melencolia I together with St. Jerome in His Study, there is no evidence that he conceived of the three prints as a unity.
Engraving was a medium well-suited to the complex symbolism of Melencolia I, which would have been "virtually unthinkable" as a painting. The engraving has two "states; in the first, the number nine in the magic square appears backward, but in the second, more common impressions it is a somewhat odd-looking regular nine.
There is little documentation from the period that would provide insight into Dürer's intent. Dürer made a few pencil studies for the engraving and some of his notes relate to it. One note refers to the symbolism of the keys and the purse—"Schlüssel—gewalt/pewtell—reichtum beteut" ("keys means power, purse means wealth")—although is it probable that Dürer was only recording their traditional meaning; they were also associated with melancholia and Saturn. Another note reflects on the nature of beauty. In 1513 and 1514, Dürer experienced the death of a number of friends, and then his mother; his grief may have influenced this engraving.
Panofsky suggested that the "I" in the title might indicate that Dürer had planned three other engravings on the subject of the four temperaments. Such allegorical renderings of the temperaments were a common artistic type leading up to the Renaissance. Panofsky considered it more likely that the "I" refers to the first of three types of melancholy defined by "Cornelius Agrippa (see Interpretation). Other art historians saw the "I" as referring to "nigredo, the first stage of the alchemical process.
Dürer mentions melancholy only once in his surviving writings. In an unfinished book for young artists, circa 1512, he cautions that too much exertion may lead one to "fall under the hand of melancholy". The print's "melencolia" is an unusual variant spelling. Since Dürer made a title-page engraving in 1503 with the word "melancolia"—similar to the German Melancholie and the transliterated Greek melancholia—it seems that the variant spelling was intentional on Dürer's part. In the unfinished treatise Dürer calls it "Melecoley".
The winged, androgynous central figure, often thought to be an angel, is commonly seen as a personification of "geometry or "melancholia. She is seated on a slab with a closed book on her lap, holds a "compass, and gazes intensely into the distance. Seemingly immobilized by gloom, she pays no attention to the many symbolic objects around her. Reflecting the traditional "iconography of melancholy, she rests her head on her hand, a closed fist. Her face is relatively dark, a sign of the accumulation of "black bile, and she wears a wreath of watery plants ("water parsley and "watercress or "lovage). Dangling from the belt of her long dress are a set of keys and a purse. Behind her, a windowless building with no clear purpose rises beyond the top of the frame. A ladder with seven rungs leans against the structure, but neither its beginning nor end is visible. A "putto sits atop a "millstone (or "grindstone) with a chip in it. He scribbles on his tablet, or perhaps uses an artist's "burin; he is generally characterized as the only active element of the picture, but some think his eyes are closed in sleep. Attached to the structure is a "balance scale above the putto, and an hourglass and a bell at the front. Scattered around the figure are numerous unused tools and mathematical instruments: a hammer and nails, a saw, a "plane, pincers, a straightedge, a molder's form, and either the nozzle of a "bellows or an enema syringe ("clyster). On the low wall behind the large "polyhedron is a "brazier with a goldsmith's "crucible and a pair of tongs. To the left of the emaciated, sleeping dog is a "censer, or an inkwell with a strap connecting a pen holder.
In the sky, a bat-like creature spreads its wings, across which are printed "Melencolia I". (This is the only one of Dürer's engravings to have a title printed within the plate, although it cannot be taken for granted that the text in question is meant to be a title and not a label for the bat.) Beyond the bat, a rainbow and an astronomical object appear—either a comet or Saturn. In the far distance is a landscape with small treed islands, suggesting flooding, and a sea. The rightmost portion of the background may show a large wave crashing over land. Panofsky believes that it is night, citing the "cast-shadow" of the hourglass on the building, with the moon lighting the scene and creating a "lunar rainbow.
The print contains numerous references to mathematics and geometric solids. On the face of the building is a 4×4 "magic square—the first to be printed in Europe—with the two middle cells of the bottom row giving the date of the engraving, 1514, which is also seen above Dürer's monogram at bottom right. The square follows the traditional rules of magic squares: each of its rows, columns, and diagonals adds to the same number, 34. It is also symmetrical, meaning that any number added to its symmetric opposite equals 17 (e.g., 15+2, 9+8). Additionally, the four corners and each quadrant of four numbers sums to 34, as do still more combinations. Dürer's mother died on May 17, 1514; some interpreters connect the digits of this date with the sets of two squares that sum to 5 and 17. The unusual solid that dominates the left half of the image is a truncated "rhombohedron with what may be a faint "skull or face, possibly even of Dürer, on it. This shape is now known as "Dürer's solid; over the years, there have been numerous analyses of its mathematical properties. In front of the dog lies a perfect sphere, which has a radius equal to the apparent distance marked by the figure's compass.
In contrast with "Saint Jerome in His Study, which has a strong sense of "linear perspective and an obvious source of light—enhancing its suggestion of spiritual accord—Melencolia I is disorderly. It has few perspective lines leading to the "vanishing point, which is below the bat-like creature at the horizon, and in fact it has no strong lines at all—there is no "visual center". The unusual polyhedron blocks some of the view into the distance and destabilizes the image as its busy lines disturb the sense of perspective and send the eye in different directions. There is little tonal contrast in the picture, and, despite its stillness, there is a sense of chaos, of "negation of order" noted by many art historians. The mysterious light source at right, which illuminates Melencolia, is unusually placed for Dürer and contributes to the "airless, dreamlike space".
If each object in the engraving could be successfully interpreted as a symbol, various ambiguities in the image would remain to be explained. The viewer does not know if it is daytime or twilight, where the figures are located, or the source of illumination at right. The ladder leaning against the structure has no obvious beginning or end, and the structure no obvious function as a building. The bat may be flying away from the scene, or perhaps it is the sort of "daemon believed to be involved in bouts of melancholia. The text on the bat's wings may be a label for that creature, although it is usually taken as a title for the engraving.
Dürer's friend and first biographer "Joachim Camerarius wrote the earliest account of the engraving. In a short essay describing the print in 1541, he commented on the use of symbolic objects: "in order to show that such [afflicted] minds commonly grasp everything and how they are frequently carried away into absurdities, he reared up in front of her a ladder into the clouds, while the ascent by means of rungs is as it were impeded by a square block of stone." The 16th-century art historian "Giorgio Vasari called Melencolia I a technical achievement that "puts the whole world in awe" in his "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.
Much of the commentary by art historians has treated the print as an "allegory, assuming that a unified message is encoded in the image if only its many constituent objects can be "unlocked" iconographically and brought into conceptual order. This mode of interpretation sees the print as a Vexierbild, a "puzzle image" or rebus whose various ambiguities can be resolved.
Certain relationships in "humorism, "astrology, and "alchemy are important for understanding the interpretive history of Melencolia I. Since the ancient Greeks, the health and "temperament of an individual were thought to be determined by the four humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Too much black bile led to a "melancholic temperament. In astrology, each temperament was under the "influence of a planet, Saturn in the case of melancholia. Each temperament was also associated with one of the "four elements; melancholia was paired with "Earth, and was considered "dry and cold" in "alchemy. Melancholia was the least desirable of the four temperaments, making for a constitution that was "awkward, miserly, spiteful, greedy, malicious, cowardly, faithless, irreverent and drowsy", as Panofsky recounts.
According to Panofsky, in Melencolia I Dürer combined the traditional "iconographies of melancholy and geometry, both governed by Saturn, in an unprecedented way. Geometry was one of the "Seven Liberal Arts and its study was considered vital to the creation of high art. Artists and tradesmen fell under the rubric of geometry, being spatially oriented. In the engraving, symbols of geometry, measurement, and trades are numerous: the compass, the scale, the hammer and nails, the plane and saw, the sphere and the unusual polyhedron. Panofsky discusses earlier personifications of geometry and finds much similarity between Dürer's engraving and an earlier allegory of geometry from "Gregor Reisch's Margarita philosophica, a popular encyclopedia.
Other aspects of the print reflect the traditional symbolism of melancholy, such as the bat and the emaciated dog. The figure wears a wreath of "wet" plants on her head to counteract the dryness of melancholy, and she has the dark face and dishevelled appearance associated with the melancholic. Magic squares of different sizes were associated with different planets; the 4×4 square is the talisman of Jupiter, an auspicious planet that fends off melancholy. Even the distant seascape, with small islands of trees that appear flooded, relates to Saturn, the "lord of the sea", and his control of tides and floods.
Dürer's understanding of melancholy was influenced by the writings of the German "humanist "Cornelius Agrippa, and before him "Marsilio Ficino. According to Ficino, most intellectuals were influenced by Saturn and were thus melancholic. He equated melancholia with elevation of the soul, since black bile "raises thought to the comprehension of the highest, because it corresponds to the highest of the planets". Before the Renaissance, melancholics were portrayed in outright negative ways, reflecting the vice of "acedia, or sloth. Ficino and Agrippa transformed the medieval meaning of melancholia into—as art historian Philip Sohm summarizes—a ""Neoplatonic conception of melancholy as divine inspiration ... Under the influence of Saturn, ... the melancholic imagination could be led to remarkable achievements in the arts".
Agrippa defined three types of melancholic genius in his "De occulta philosophia. The first, melancholia imaginativa, affected artists, whose imaginative faculty is stronger than their reason (compared with, e.g., scientists) or intuitive mind (e.g., theologians). Dürer might have been referring to this first type of melancholia, the artist's, by the "I" in the title. Melancholy was said to attract "daemons that produced bouts of frenzy and ecstasy in the afflicted, lifting the mind toward genius. In Panofsky's summary, the imaginative melancholic "typifies the first, or least exalted, form of human ingenuity. She can invent and build, and she can think ... but she has no access to the metaphysical world.... [She] belongs in fact to those who 'cannot extend their thought beyond the limits of space.' Hers is the inertia of a being which renounces what it could reach because it cannot reach for what it longs." Dürer's personification of melancholia is of "a being to whom her allotted realm seems intolerably restricted—of a being whose thoughts 'have reached the limit'". Melencolia I portrays a state of lost inspiration: the figure is "surrounded by the instruments of creative work, but sadly brooding with a feeling that she is achieving nothing."
Autobiography runs through many of the interpretations of Melencolia I, including Panofsky's. Iván Fenyő considered the print a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence, saying: "shortly before [Dürer] drew Melancholy, he wrote: 'what is beautiful I do not know' ... Melancholy is a lyric confession, the self-conscious introspection of the Renaissance artist, unprecedented in northern art. Erwin Panofsky is right in considering this admirable plate the spiritual self-portrait of Dürer."
In 1991, Peter-Klaus Schuster published Melencolia I: Dürers Denkbild, an exhaustive summary of the print's interpretation in two volumes. His own analysis, that Melencolia I is an "elaborately wrought allegory of virtue ... structured through an almost diagrammatic opposition of virtue and fortune", was not conceptually new, according to Mitchell B. Merback, and may have paradoxically showed the weaknesses of allegorical interpretations. "Joseph Leo Koerner abandoned such efforts in his 1993 commentary, describing the engraving as purposely obscure, such that the viewer reflects on their own interpretive labor. He wrote, "The vast effort of subsequent interpreters, in all their industry and error, testifies to the efficacy of the print as an occasion for thought. Instead of mediating a meaning, Melencolia seems designed to generate multiple and contradictory readings, to clue its viewers to an endless exegetical labor until, exhausted in the end, they discover their own portrait in Dürer's sleepless, inactive personification of melancholy. Interpreting the engraving itself becomes a detour to self-reflection."
In a 2004 article, art historian Patrick Doorly rejected interpretations based on Panofsky and argued that Dürer is concerned more with beauty than melancholy. Doorly finds textual support for many elements of Melencolia I in Plato's "Hippias Major, a dialog about what constitutes the beautiful, and other works that Dürer would have read in conjunction with his belief that beauty and geometry, or measurement, were related. (Dürer wrote a treatise on human proportions, one of his last major accomplishments.) Dürer was exposed to a variety of literature that may have influenced the engraving by his friend and collaborator, the humanist "Willibald Pirckheimer, who also translated from Greek. In Plato's dialog, "Socrates and "Hippias discuss the nature of beauty and consider numerous ways to define or describe it. They ask if that which is pleasant to sight and hearing is the beautiful, which Dürer symbolizes by the intense gaze of the figure, and the bell, respectively. The dialog then examines the notion that the "useful" is the beautiful, and Dürer wrote in his notes, "Usefulness is a part of beauty. Therefore what is useless in a man, is not beautiful." Doorly interprets the many useful tools in the engraving as symbolizing this idea; even the dog is a "useful" hunting hound and not the smaller household breed of the "St. Jerome picture. At one point the dialog refers to a "millstone, which is an unusually specific object to appear in both sources by coincidence. Another text that likely influenced Dürer was "Luca Pacioli's "De divina proportione, a mathematical work first published in 1509. Doorly connects aspects of this text with "the ladder", "number, weight, and measure (panel of numbers, scales, and hourglass)", and "gold tested by fire". Further, Dürer may have seen the perfect "dodecahedron as representative of the beautiful, the ""quintessence", based on his understanding of "Platonic solids. The "botched" polyhedron in the engraving therefore symbolizes a failure to understand beauty, and the figure, standing in for the artist, is in a gloom as a result.
Various artists in the sixteenth century and beyond used Melencolia I as a source, either in single images personifying melancholia or in the older type in which all four temperaments appear. "Lucas Cranach the Elder used its motifs in at least three paintings circa 1830. They share elements with Melencolia I such as a winged, seated woman, a sleeping or sitting dog, a sphere, and varying numbers of children playing, likely based on Durer's "putto. Cranach's paintings, however, contrast melancholy with childish gaiety, and in the 1528 painting, occult elements appear. Prints by "Hans Sebald Beham (1539) and "Jost Amman (1589) are clearly related. In the Baroque period, representations of Melancholy and "Vanity were combined. "Domenico Fetti's Melancholy/Meditation (c. 1620) is an important example; Panofsky et al. wrote that "the meaning of this picture is obvious at first glance; all human activity, practical no less than theoretical, theoretical no less than artistic, is vain, in view of the vanity of all earthly things." The print attracted Romantic artists in the nineteenth century; self-portrait drawings by "Henry Fuseli and "Caspar David Friedrich show the artists' interest in capturing the mood of the Melencolia figure, as does Friedrich's The Woman with the Spider's Web.
Melencolia I also influenced literature. The Renaissance historian "Frances Yates believed "George Chapman's 1594 poem "The Shadow of Night to be influenced by Durer's print, and "Robert Burton described it in his "The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Dürer's Melencolia is the patroness of the City of Dreadful Night in the final canto of "James Thomson's "poem of that name. The print was taken up in Romantic poetry of the nineteenth century in English and French.
"Lucas Cranach the Elder (1528) or copy by a follower
"Hans Sebald Beham's Melancholia (1539)
"Jost Amman's Melancholia (1589)
"Jan Wierix's 1602 copy
"Henry Fuseli's self-portrait (c. 1780–90)
Caspar David Friedrich, The Woman with the Spider's Web (c. 1803), a woodcut after Friedrich's drawing, sometimes titled "Melancholy"
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