Dürer’s Melancolia I


In 1513-14 Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) produced three well-known engravings: Knight, Death and the Devil, St. Jerome in His Study and Melancolia I. Tons of literature have been written on them, together and individually. This is not to say that I read much of it. However, I’ve been impressed by Melancolia I, and I’d like to share a few modest observations about it. (1) There is something odd about the title of the picture; I suppose that the right way to transcribe the Greek word (‘black bile’), today as well as in Dürer’s age, would be melancholia. (2) The word melancholia has many different meanings, often incompatible ones. A gargantuan discussion of the notion of melancholy is found in Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621. Given that the female character which represents melancholy is holding a compass, is surrounded by sculpting and carpenting tools, and is laureled, it is clear that Dürer took melancholy to be a creative force. “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, politics, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” This is the question with which Book XXX of Ps.-Aristotelian Problemata starts (953a10-12). This idea is picked up by Marsilio Ficino, who wrote in his De Vita, a popular book that Dürer knew in German translation: “All men of excellence in any art have been melancholics.” (3) The female character is winged, like an angel. Arguably, this suggests that melancholy is God-sent, or that it is God’s gift to humans. (4) Sand-clock on the wall (detail). Above it is the gnomon, or sun-dial. Curiously, the sun-dial does not cast a shadow, although it should, given the direction of light. The sand in the clock is running, and it seems (thogh I’m not sure) that about a half of it is left. Moreover, the design of the sand-clock is not symmetrical, which may suggest that it is not rotatable, and that may imply irreversibility of time. Interestingly, sand-clock is present on all three engravings from 1513. (5) The magic square (detail). The sum of the numbers in all rows, columns and on both diagonals, is 34. I’m not sure if this particular number has any special significance. However, the square contains the date of Dürer’s mother’s death: 16. 5. 1514. The first number top left is 16, the next two are 3 and 2 (3+2=5), and the middle two numbers in the bottom row are 15 and 14.

I would be interested to learn the significance of other details of this engraving, such as the bell and the scale on the wall, the pentagonal sculpture at which Melancholy looks, the curled animal next to her feet, the comet in the sky, etc.

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