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Melencolia I.
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Melencolia I., result 1 of 1

Item Details
Open Artstor
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Melencolia I.
Work Type
prints, engravings, works on paper
Image: 186mm (width), 238mm (height), Support: 186mm (width), 238mm (height)

This is one of Albrecht Dürer's three Meisterstiche ('master engravings'), representing him at the height of his powers in the mid-1510s. The other two are Knight, Death and the Devil and St Jerome in his Study. Almost every major institutional collection has an impression (copy) of at least one of these three prints, as do many private print collections. Te Papa has two impressions of Melencolia I but the others are not yet represented.

Melencolia I is mysterious, charismatic and compelling to modern sensibilities. It has been more interpreted than almost any other print, including by Peter-Klaus Schuster, MELENCOLIA I: Dürers Denkbild (2 vols, Berlin, 1991), and in influential discussions in Erwin Panofsky's The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943) and his co-authored book Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art (1964).

Reproduction usually makes the image seem darker than it is in an original impression, and in particular affects the facial expression of the female figure, which is more cheerful than in most reproductions.

The title comes from the archaically-spelled Melencolia I, the only one of Dürer's engravings to have a title in the plate. The date 1514 appears in the bottom row of the magic square, as well as above Dürer's monogram at bottom right. It denotes the date of the work, also the year of the death of Dürer's much-loved mother, Barbara. 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 type, Melencholia Imaginativa, which he believed artists were subject to, 'imagination' predominates over 'mind' or 'reason'.

The standard interpretation highlights the depressive or melancholy state of the human condition, and explains the many important symbols in the print accordingly. These include:

  • The tools of geometry and architecture which surround the figure and are unused
  • The 4 × 4 magic square, with the two middle cells of the bottom row giving the date 1514. The square features the traditional magic square rules based on the number 34, and in addition, the square's four quadrants, corners and centre also equal this number. It is thought to be a talisman to attract the jovial Jupiter, the god who could heal the melancholic effects of Saturn.
  • The truncated rhombohedron (solid geometrical object) with a faint human skull on it. This shape is now known as Dürer's solid; there have been numerous articles disputing the precise shape of this polyhedron.
  • The hourglass showing time running out
  • The empty scale (balance)
  • The despondent winged (possibly angel) female figure, who dominates the composition
  • The purse and keys
  • The beacon (or comet) and rainbow in the sky
  • The compass, geometrical solid, magic square, scale and hourglass, which all denote mathematical knowledge.

An autobiographical interpretation of Melencolia I has been suggested by several art historians. Iván Fenyo considered it a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence, saying: 'shortly before [Dürer] drew Melancholy, he wrote: "what is beautiful I do not know" ... Melancholy is a lyric confession, the self-conscious introspection of the Renaissance artist, unprecedented in northern art. Erwin Panofsky is right in considering this admirable plate the spiritual self-portrait of Dürer'. Dürer's Melencolia features prominently in James Thomson's famous poem City of Dreadful Night (1874). More recent writers who have responded to the winged figure include Jean-Paul Sartre and Gunther Grass.

The figure sits in the midst of a construction site, surrounded by the objects listed above. She wears 'a dark and withdrawn countenance while Saturn [the planet associated with Melancholy] radiates nocturnal light over the ocean behind'. (Patrick Wright, 'The Joy of Sadness', The wreath over her brow is made of water parsley and watercress, and is supposed to counteract and help cure the dryness of the melancholy temperament. The purse, keys and clenched fist all link melancholy with avarice. In her book The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (1979), Frances Yates sees the sleeping and half-starved dog as a sign that the body is under firm control: it represents the 'starved dog of the senses'. She remarks that Dürer's ladder leads up to heaven, not merely to the top of a half-made building. And far from being in a state of failure or inertia, Dürer's angel is in a visionary trance. This is at odds with Jonathan Jones's more orthodox image of 'the troubled human mind': The bat holding the title banner is associated with melancholic darkness. Boiled bats were traditionally recommended as a remedy for melancholy. The putto is an earnest, scribbling servant, contrasting with the more decorative, playful and amorous putti commonly found in other art works.

See: and other sources cited in this summary.

Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art November 2016

Collection: Art
Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1959
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Image and original data provided by Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa Tongarewa
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