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Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia, an engraving

1514/1514

British Museum

British Museum

The bat-like creature flying through a night sky declares the subject of this famous engraving, Melancolia I. That dark temperament is personified by a female figure seated in the foreground. The winged infant beside her is a 'genius' (in the ancient sense, meaning an accompanying spirit).

Melancholy has wings and from her belt hang keys and a money bag, symbolising power and wealth. She is surrounded by measuring instruments. Above her head is a panel of 'magic' numbers (they add up to 34 in all directions). At her feet are the tools that can fashion the material world. Yet she does nothing, lost in thought, she turns away from the light.

Renaissance philosophers had suggested a new interpretation for melancholy, as the temperament of genius (in the modern sense). Melancholy was possessed by artists, in whom 'Imagination' predominates and 'Reason' dominates scholars, while the final stage of 'Spirit' was the preserve of theologians. If this interpretation is correct, Dürer has presented us with a portrait of his own temperament as an artist.
Earlier engravers had cheerfully copied the work of other artists, but Dürer sought 'to pour out new things that had never before been in the mind of any other man'. His originality has made this print hard to interpret.

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  • Title: Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia, an engraving
  • Date Created: 1514/1514
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 240.00mm (plate-mark); Width: 189.00mm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: engraving
  • Subject: allegory/personification; mental state
  • Registration number: 1912,1220.2
  • Producer: Print made by D
  • Material: paper
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Art Fund. Previous owner/ex-collection Anon Lugt 369 and 365. Previous owner/ex-collection Ruskin, John

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