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Melencolia I Albrecht Dürer


Albrecht Dürer Nuremberg, 1471 – Nuremberg, 1528

Date 1514
Object type print
Medium, technique engraving on paper

238 x 185 mm

Inventory number 1900-513
Collection Prints and Drawings
On view This artwork is not on display

In 1513-1514, Dürer made three “master engravings”, similar in format, among them Melencolia I, whose enigmatic symbols and multifarious meanings have made it one of the most often discussed works in art history. The title refers to the theory of temperaments, which was of ancient origin but survived into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and according to which each man belongs to one of four basic temperament types, those of sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic personalities. Each class represented the supposed dominance of one of four bodily humours: blood, choler or yellow gall, black gall and phlegm. In medieval representations, the melancholy humour was considered the least desirable, partly for the predominance of black gall, and partly for the detrimental influence of the planet Saturn. Following Aristotle, the Neoplatonists of Florence reinterpreted this temperament and emphasised its positive features. They thought such people of eminence as philosophers, poets and visual artists were essentially melancholic, and considered the temperament a dangerous but privileged trait of the artist. Dürer’s engraving follows this idea in interpreting Melancholy as the distinguishing trait of the artist endowed with genius.

The winged female figure, sitting on a stone stair, resting her head on her left fist, her face gloomy, represents in part the disposition for musing and the inability to act. This trait relates to mediaeval representations of Melancholy: this temperament was associated with Sloth, one of the seven vices. The compasses in her right hand, the objects and tools lying around her are traditional attributes used in allegorical representations of Geometry, one of the seven liberal arts. The book, the inkpot and the compasses are the paraphernalia of pure geometry, and the tools denote applied geometry, while the truncated rhomboid stands for descriptive geometry. The objects hung on the wall of the edifice behind the woman – the scales, the hourglass and the bell – also refer to measurement, that of weight and time, respectively. The wall also bears a magic square, in which the sum of the numbers in all directions is 34. To ward off cold and dryness, qualities ofMelancholy and Saturn, the female figure wears a wreath of watercress and water ranunculus, plants of a marshy habitat. Astrology and the relationship to Saturn are referenced by the comet in the background, the rainbow and the body of water engulfing even the trees. The comet and the water relate to a prophecy that intrigued Dürer’s contemporaries, according to which the conjunction of the planets would cause floods in February 1524. The bat, which in the mediaeval tradition represents Superbia and Doubt, and which now bears the inscription Melencolia I, flees from the comet and the light of the rainbow. In one interpretation, the animal represents the negative aspect of Melancholy, in contrast with the positive side, the winged female figure ofMelancholy II, which stands for genius. Florentine Neoplatonist philosopher Marsilio Ficino associated the melancholic temperament with intellectual creative power in his De Vita Triplici (Three Books on Life, 1489). Following Ficino, Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim differentiated between three types of melancholiacs in his De Occulta Philosophia, the first among them being artists governed by imagination. The number “I” in the title of the engraving may refer to this first group.


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