Melancholy and Infinite Sadness

Zoom into Albrecht Dürer's gloomy engraving

By Google Arts & Culture

Melencolia I (1514) by Albrecht DürerKupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Referred to as a "Spiritual self-portrait" and often interpreted as an image of the artist’s grief after the death of his mother, Melencolia is perhaps Dürer's most famous master engraving. 

The subtle styling technique was praised during the Renaissance by Giorgio Vasari, and the image’s complexity is still not completely deciphered today. 

The only thing that is indisputable is that the main figure is an allegory of melancholy, which, according to ancient humoral pathology (or the theory of four seasons) presents one of the four human temperaments. According to this teaching, the mixture of the body's own juices - blood (sanguis), mucus (phlegma), yellow bile (chole), black bile (melaina) - decides on the nature of a person; they are either sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric or melancholic. As a depiction of the latter, this figure has an excess of black bile. 

Judged negatively in the Middle Ages, melancholy became associated with genius, or at least artistic and intellectual prowess, by Italian Neo-Platonists in the 15th century. Knowledge of one’s own finite existence within the infinity of creation was seen as a kind of sublime sadness. From this suffering comes the artist’s essential impulse for their work.

This engraving was made in the year Dürer's mother, Barbara, died, and this experience is often thought to influence the engraver’s most famous image. Part of the “magic square” on the wall above the melancholic figure indicates Barbara’s date of death, the 16th of May 1514. 

The death knell…


...and scales form an ensemble with the square, representing the transience of life, the passing of time, and the weighing of the soul in judgement.

The printing on the left is the first version of Melancolia carried out by Dürer. 

Close comparison of the number square between the two versions reveals changes made in the process, including changing a ‘5’ to a ‘6’, and reconfiguring the strange mirrored ‘9’ symbol below it.

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