(Germany 24 May 1471 – 05 Apr 1528)
23.9 x 18.9 cm platemark; 34.0 x 27.0 cm sheet
Dürer’s most famous and most complex print, ‘Melencolia I’ represents the artistic imagination personified as a monumental winged female figure, bereft of inspiration. The art historian Erwin Panofsky famously described the image as a “spiritual self-portrait” of Dürer himself. The figure is shown sitting on a stone slab, inscribed with the artist’s monogram and date. Her face is slumped in her left hand; in the other she idly holds a compass. On her head she sports a wreath of medicinal plants to counter the effects of dryness caused by melancholy. Dangling from her waistband are a bunch of keys and a purse, symbols of power and wealth, according to Dürer.
Strewn around the winged figure is a chaotic and bewildering array of instruments relating to architecture and geometry –disciplines that bring order to artistic creation. These include a moulder’s form, a plane, a saw, a ruler, nails, the mouth of a bellows protruding from under her skirt, and on the left an inkpot and pen case, a hammer and a melting pot with tongs. A miserable hound, which like the bat is an attribute of melancholy, lies between a sphere and a stone polyhedron, according to Panofsky, “not so much tools as symbols or emblems of the scientific principle which underlies the arts of architecture and carpentry”. Hanging from the wall are a pair of scales, an hourglass and a bell. The magic square – where each row of four figures adds up to 34 – is a talisman to attract the good fortune of Jupiter and counteract the influence of Saturn, which was believed at affect all creative melancholics.
In Dürer’s time, melancholy (or black bile) was understood to be one of the four cardinal humours (the others being choler or yellow gall, phlegm and blood). These were the bodily fluids that determined an individual’s emotional or physical disposition. Associated with Saturn, melancholy was the most feared of the humours since it not only made individuals susceptible to depression but could also lead to insanity. The theory of the humours was elaborated by Marsilio Ficino in his treatise ‘De vita triplici’ (1489). Although he acknowledged the dangers of melancholy he also emphasised that it was the basis of genius and artistic creativity.
Elaborating on Ficino’s theory, Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim distinguished three categories of melancholy genius in his influential book ‘De occulta philosophia’. The three categories, each coming under the sway of Saturn, were imagination (for artists and craftsmen), then reason (for physicians or statesmen) and lastly mind (for theologians). Agrippa’s theory seems to lie behind the meaning of this engraving – artistic melancholy – and accounts for the Roman numeral I of the title, inscribed on the wings of the bat which flies through the nocturnal sky, pierced by a comet from Saturn.
Giulia Bartrum, Albrecht Dürer and his legacy. The graphic work of a Renaissance artist, London, 2002, 188. no.128
Campbell Dodgson, Albrecht Dürer, London, 1926. no.73
F.W.H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts c.1450-1700, Amsterdam, 1949, vol. VII. no.75
Joseph Meder, Dürer Katalog; ein handbuch über Albrecht Dürers Stich, Radierungen, Holzschnitte, deren Zustände, Ausgaben und Wasserzeichen, Vienna, 1932. no.75 IIa
Erwin Panofsky, Albrecht Dürer [2 vols], Princeton, 1943, vol. I: 156-71.
Peter Raisis, Look, 'A reason to be cheerful about melancholy', pg.8-9, Newtown, Jul 2013, 8, 9 (illus.).
Rainer Schoch, Matthias Mende and Anna Scherbaum, Albrecht Dürer. Das druckgraphische Werk, vol. I, Kupferstiche, Eisenradierungen und Kaltnadelblätter, Munich, 2001, 179-84. no.71
Peter-Klaus Schuster, Melencolia I Dürer’s Denkbild [2 vols], Berlin, 1991.
Peter-Klaus Schuster, Mélancolie: génie et folie en Occident, ‘Melencolia I Dürer et sa posterité’, Paris, 2005, 90-104, 138-39.
Walter L Strauss, The complete engravings, etchings and drypoints of Albrecht Dürer, New York, 1962, 166-69. no.79
Adam von Bartsch, Le peintre graveur [21 vols], Vienna, 1803-1821. no.74
European prints and drawings 1500-1900, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 Aug 2014–02 Nov 2014