Renaissance

All You Should Know About the Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I

Zuzanna Stańska 2 July 2021 min Read

A famous print, known as Melencolia I created by Albrecht Dürer is one of the most intriguing works in art history. In this modest monochromatic masterpiece, a lot of symbols and meanings are coded. Ready to discover all its secrets?

Mysterious title

The title of the print comes from the archaically spelled title, Melencolia I, appearing within the engraving itself. It is the only one of Dürer’s engravings to have a title on the plate. The date of 1514 appears in two places – in the bottom row of the magic square and above Dürer’s monogram at the bottom right. It is likely that the “I” refers to the first of the three types of melancholia defined by the German humanist writer Cornelius Agrippa. In this first type, called Melancholia Imaginativa, ‘imagination’ predominates over ‘mind’ or ‘reason’. Creativity in the arts was the realm of the imagination, considered the first and lowest in the hierarchy of the three categories of genius. The next was the realm of reason, and the highest the realm of spirit.

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.
Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.

Meanings of the allegorical composition

Melencolia I is an allegorical composition that has been the subject of many interpretations. There are two main ones:

1. It may be a general allegory of depression or melancholy

Some art historians suggest that the image references the depressive or melancholy state. There are a couple of symbols that can suggest this:

  • The tools of geometry and architecture surround the figure, unused.
  • The 4 × 4 magic square, with the two middle cells of the bottom row giving the date of the engraving: 1514. The square features the traditional magic square rules based on the number 34, and in addition, the square’s four quadrants, corners, and center also equal this number.
  • The truncated rhombohedron with a faint human skull on it. This shape is now known as Dürer’s solid. Over the years, there have been numerous articles disputing the precise shape of this polyhedron. It is seriously too complicated for me to dare to explain it to you here.
  • The hourglass showing time running out
  • The empty scale
  • The despondent winged figure of genius, which in the ancient world symbolized a soul.
  • The purse and keys
  • The beacon (or comet) and rainbow in the sky
  • Mathematical knowledge is referenced by the use of the symbols: compass, geometrical solid, magic square, scale, hourglass.

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Detail.
Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Detail.

2. It may be an allegory of Dürer’s depression or melancholy

An autobiographical interpretation of Melencolia I has been suggested by several historians, like art history superstar, Erwin Panofsky. According to this interpretation, the print may be a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence. Shortly before Dürer drew Melencolia I, he wrote: ‘what is beautiful I do not know’.

In medieval philosophy, each individual was thought to be dominated by one of the four humors. Melancholy, associated with black gall, was the least desirable of the four, and melancholics were considered the most likely to succumb to insanity.

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Detail.
Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany. Detail.

Melancholy of a creative genius

Renaissance thought, however, also linked melancholy with creative genius; thus, at the same time that this idea changed the status of this humor, it made the self-conscious artist aware that his gift came with terrible risks. The winged personification of Melancholy, seated dejectedly with her head resting on her hand, holds a caliper and is surrounded by other tools associated with geometry, one of the seven liberal arts that underlie artistic creation-and the one through which Dürer, probably more than most artists, hoped to approach perfection in his own work.

Well it would be ironic if this image of the artist paralyzed and powerless would exemplify Dürer’s own artistic power at its superlative height.