Durer’s Melencolia I

Melelcolia I, Albrecht Durer
Meloncolia I, Albrecht Dürer.

One of the most iconic engravings by one of art’s great printmakers, Melelcolia (an archaic spelling of melancholia) is filled with symbols of alchemy and carpentry (architecture), along with various measuring tools, an hourglass, a polyhedron and a “magic square” — the rows of which add up to 34 in all directions.

The middle two numbers in the bottom row of the magic square are the date of the engraving, 1514. It has been pointed out that 34 is a number in the Fibonacci sequence (associated with the “golden section”).

The title’s “I”, as announced in the banner-like wings of a bat/rat/snake thing as it flies out of a burst of light under the arch of a rainbow, indicates that this may have been intended as the first of a series of representations of the “four temperaments”: melencolic, phlegmatic, choleric and sanguine.

If you dig, you will find many interpretations and discussions of this work, filled as it is with symbols and enigmas perhaps known only to Durer himself — like the vague skull or phantom face many see in the leading face of the polyhedron.

This example of the engraving, in its second state, is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Use the “Fullscreen” link below the image and then the zoom controls or download arrow. Spend some time with it; if nothing else it is beautifully drawn and rendered.

One of many possible interpretations suggests that the apparently brooding figure, accompanied by a cherub-like genius (in the ancient meaning of an attending spirit), might be a symbol of the artist.

Is there a relationship between the artist and the melancholic? Does art spring from a troubled mind? Must you “pay the dues to sing the blues”, as the song suggests? Maybe this is Durer’s meditation on those questions.

I think it’s interesting, however, to note that the face of the main figure, on close inspection, looks more pensive than what we usually think of as melancholy.


4 Replies to “Durer’s Melencolia I

  1. I’ve always been fascinated with him because, like all engravers, I know you have to start with creating the image in reverse. I notice at least one correction in the magic square, but everything else? He didn’t miss much, did he?

  2. The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein
    The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace London
    Friday, 02 November 2012 to Sunday, 14 April 2013
    Among the highlights are prints and drawings by Albrecht Dürer.

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