What strikes me most when I look at Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia I is that bulky human form hunkered down in contemplation at the forefront of the picture. Others are drawn to its celebrated mystical square in which every which way adds up to the magical number 34.
Albrecht Durer is one of the most charismatic and talented artists ever. Let’s cut to the chase as an illustrator he was the epitome of all things brilliant. Melencolia I is literally a magical picture stuffed full of symbolism and disputed meaning – which any trawl through artistic sources will bear out.
Leaving aside Durer’s spelling of melancholy for a moment let’s look first at what this term meant during the period of the Renaissance. Before the system of western medicine we use today the ancient Greeks believed human nature and health were determined by four temperaments and their associated humours.
The temperaments or personality types were sanguine (easy-osy), choleric ( angry), phlegmatic (steady-Eddies) and melancholic (depressive). People were susceptible to becoming one or other of these types because of an excess of one of four humours dominating the body: yellow bile, black bile, blood or phlegm.
Too much black bile for instance was believed to enable malign agents to enter the person so creating an emotional state that could display itself as frenzied or delusional and in some cases the person was believed possessed by the devil. Heroism and romantic yearnings were attributed to others less extremely affected by melancholy, for others still the mood was more despondency tending towards hopelessness.
Look at Durer’s picture and while there are interpretations galore the figure which dominates it certainly has an air of despondency about her. This engraving has given rise to a huge amount of discussion about its symbolism and if you look at it, really look at it, it’s clearly obvious the whole thing is steeped in meaning – only we’re not sure exactly what.
Some symbols are fairly straightforward and recur in very many pictures of the Renaissance, allowing those who know them to find so much more in those pictures than can be gleaned from a casual glance. Some symbols remain with us today on tombstones – e.g. the hour glass signifying the passing of time, life running out, the transience of life.
The bunch of keys hanging from the figure’s belt denotes power – that power which does or should belong to the figure – and a purse implies wealth – which can be interpreted in terms of money or of talent. Perhaps of greater relevance to this picture is when the two, keys and purse, are shown together they represent the cold planet Saturn and Saturn is also associated with melancholy.
There’s a ladder leaning against an unfinished building and tools and instruments used by masons and builders lie scattered around – builder’s block? Is Durer telling us he was suffering from the painter’s equivalent of writer’s block – painter’s block? We don’t know for sure but it seems he was undergoing a crisis of confidence in 1514 with the recent death of his mother. Had he lost his motivation? Possibly.
As a young man there was none more fun-loving, confident and humorous than Albrecht Durer but it may be his life had reached a point of crisis and for many this picture is said to be an allegory for the depression tormenting him.
Empty scales attached to the string course around the unfinished tower or building signify balance (possibly) and those bells attached to the wall – eternity. The skinny dog, I’m not sure, dogs were sometimes included in pictures as able to look into a person’s soul – to find good or evil – which could be what was going on if Durer was suffering doubts and depression. They could also mean faithfulness or devotion – but why so skinny?
Things get really interesting with the appearance of that odd 3-D block – a truncated rhombohedron, I believe, that has a human skull traced onto it. Skulls, again familiar in our cemeteries, refer to death (think pirate flag) the passing from life to the afterlife. The solid block demonstrates Durer’s fascination with mathematics- one of the many interests of this highly intelligent man – and is now known as Durer’s solid.
The bonnie wee cherub or putto sitting on a millstone is industriously writing or drawing, perhaps – as Durer should be.
Returning to the main image; the winged figure at the forefront of the picture. Winged but earthbound this is a traditional-looking Genius from classical art who is sitting in the chaos of abandoned tools and symbols depicting life’s brief span and clutching a pair of calipers (which measure the distance between two points – which could be an allusion to mood). Genius is awaiting inspiration and without that she, and the tools are useless. A fabulous bulked out figure, no sylph-like muse she sits slouched to one side resting her head on her hand looking more resigned to her predicament than blackly depressed.
The wreath on Genius’s head might be a reference to the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion and adopted at Christian burials in the hope the souls of the dead will be saved. Or it could hark back to Germanic pagan wreaths made to mark a change in seasons or mood. Then again the ancient Greeks adorned their heroes with laurel wreaths and the ancient Romans likewise to portray success and power.
All this said how do we know this as a picture about melancholy? We know because Durer has handily provided us with its title in the form of a fluttering banner pulled along by a bat. Bats come from darkness. The banner reads, MELENCOLIA I. Not the usual spelling and it has been suggested Durer has broken up the word into mele from the Greek for sweetness and col meaning suffering – a dichotomy of emotions and this contradiction is further alluded to in the squiggly symbols at the end of melencolia which were often used during the medieval period to denote to and fro – going away and returning.
It is not certain either the reason Durer put an ‘I’ after melecolia. For some is stands for our current letter J – a swash letter and an alternative form of the J before the early 15th century and frequently used in religious pictures of Christ – so maybe J for Jesus. Then again it may refer to the three types of melancholia described the German Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in De Occulta Philosophia in which he arranged three orders of melancholy – 1 the imagination as required by artists; 2 – reason; 3 – the intellect. In such a case Durer’s engraving is illustrative of the first of these – melancholia I i.e. Imaginative and, yes, he apparently is telling us he is suffering from artist’s block.
Then it is also suggested Durer meant this melancholia picture to be the first of a series on melancholy, just never got round to the others. Not too compelling an argument- but, of course, if he really was suffering from melancholy and couldn’t get himself geed up then it is likely he would not have completed a series but I think this explanation is highly unlikely. Others say the picture is part of a different series, that of the engravings of The Knight and St Jerome in his study.
Back to the banner. It is partly enclosed between a rainbow and the sea and shares the space with a comet travelling across the sky. This is thought to be Ensisheim’s meteorite which landed at Alsace on 7 November 1492 and was described in the wonderful Nuremberg Chronicle and illustrated by Durer. Did I say Durer came from the town of Nuremberg in the German state of Franconia?
Even people with no interest in art are familiar with Durer’s Melencolia I because of the inclusion of a magic square in this work.
Durer’s magic square has been described by geeks as a gnomon magic square i.e. a square comprising 4 rows along and 4 rows down with each row adding up to the magical number 34- up, down and across. The inner central square of 10, 11, 6, 7 also add up to 34 and symmetrically placed paired numbers add up to 17 – half of the magical 34 which makes this square even more incredible. Apparently.
There is a lot written about the magical qualities of 34 but you’re on your own with finding out more about it. All I have to say is the square will look familiar to anyone who has ever done Sudoku. Back in Durer’s time people were equally fascinated by puzzles and brainteasers. Durer has configured his square to include the date of this engraving, 1514, along the bottom row which might explain some confusion over changes he made to the other numbers in his square and whether he was deliberately adding or concealing clues as to the meaning of the picture, or not. Certainly this magic square has been the subject of umpteen articles many of which you can read for yourself online if at all interested in tying yourself up in knots and getting nowhere.
A century on from Albrecht Durer the English scholar Robert Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy – exploring how those afflicted with melancholy were driven by emotion that could be either uplifting or depressing. His insights into the condition, such as they were, proved hugely popular and were pinched by other writers for his tongue-in-cheek handling and humour. This meandering literary marathon has been claimed by some to be the best book ever written, but I wouldn’t know.
The state of melancholia inspired literature of all kinds, musical composition and works of art. Surely the most beautiful interpretation is Albrecht Durer’s engraving of 1514.
Another writer inspired by Durer’s picture was the Scottish poet B. V. Thomson whose work The City of Dreadful Night from the 1870s tells a tale of someone who has lost his religious faith. It begins as it means to go on:
O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!
O battling in black floods without an ark!…
…The moving moon and stars from east to west
Circle before her in the sea of air;
Shadows and gleams glide round her solemn rest.
Her subjects often gaze up to her there:
The strong to drink new strength of iron endurance,
The weak new terrors; all, renewed assurance
And confirmation of the old despair.
You get the idea, it is not a light piece of verse. Thomson’s great title was soon nicked by the more famous writer Rudyard Kipling for his short stories and by the American author O. Henry. But which writer hasn’t nicked someone else’s brilliant phrase?
Back in Durer’s time life was far less compartmentalised than now and the state of melancholy was seen as affecting people physically, mentally and as Thomson explored through doubts over former certainties. Melancholy was also linked with dilemmas conjured out of conflicting ideas relating to natural and moral philosophy; it was entangled up with the supernatural – as Durer has done here through allusions to alchemy, mathematics and astrology into the bargain.
Durer’s synthesises of melancholy with so many symbols relating to conflict and loss of inspiration were surely references to his own doubting genius but his meticulously worked wondrous talent can keep us guessing as to its true meaning for another six hundred years.