DÜRER, Albrecht
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Melencolia I

Engraving, 239 x 189 mm
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

Dürer's greatest achievement in printmaking were the three engravings of 1513-14, regarded as his masterpieces. Melencolia I is by far the most complex of the three master engravings. The winged genius, representing the figure of Melancholy, rests her head on her hand, in a reflective pose, and holds a compass. Around her are geometric shapes, including a sphere and a giant polyhedron, along with scattered woodworking tools. The tools are drawn from the field of measuring and building, in other words, architecture. The rhomboid and sphere represent geometry, the science of measurement and numbers upon which all arts are based.

On the wall of the building hang a bell, an hourglass, scales and a magic square of 16 numerals (with each line adding up to 34). A dog sleeps at Melancholy's feet and a cherub sits astride an upturned millstone. A bat-like creature holds up the inscription `Melencolia I'. The dog and bat correspond to this melancholy humour. Melancholy was considered to be both a negative and positive power of the mind, as represented by the bat and writing putto.

Although the precise meaning of the image is now elusive, it deals with the relationship between melancholy and creativity. While melancholy may take away enthusiasm for creativity, it is often a characteristic of the creative.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 2 minutes):
Vincenzo Bellini: Malinconia, ninfa gentile