All You Should Know About Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I

Zuzanna Stańska 13 September 2023 min Read

A renowned print, famously titled “Melencolia I” and crafted by Albrecht Dürer, stands as one of the most captivating works in art history. Within this unassuming monochromatic masterpiece, a plethora of symbols and significances lie encoded. Are you prepared to unveil all of its enigmatic secrets?

Mysterious Title

The title of the print comes from the archaically spelled “melancholy”, 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 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 was 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 shows 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 Could 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 philosophy, however, also connected melancholy with creative brilliance. Consequently, while this notion transformed the perception of this temperament, it also instilled in the self-aware artist a profound awareness of the formidable risks inherent in their talent. The winged embodiment of Melancholy, seated in a state of despondency with her head resting on her hand, grasps a caliper and is surrounded by various instruments associated with geometry. Geometry is one of the seven liberal arts that form the foundation of artistic creation, and it was through this discipline that Dürer, perhaps more so than many other artists, aspired to attain excellence in his own work.

It would be ironic if this portrayal of the artist, immobilized and impotent, were to epitomize Dürer’s own artistic prowess at its zenith.

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