Monday, 20 September 2021

How Dürer's "Melencolia I" is a painful but liberating metamorphosis!


The title of this post may at first seem rather strange, especially when we know that the main subjects of these pages are "Magic Squares, Spheres and Tori." However, the famous "Melencolia I" engraving by Albrecht Dürer does depict, amongst other symbols, a magic square of order-4 (already examined in "A Magic Square Tribute to Dürer, 500+ Years After Melencolia I," and "Pan-Zigzag Magic Tori Magnify the "Dürer" Magic Square"). 

In the section reserved for correspondence at the end of the post "A Magic Square Tribute to Dürer, 500+ Years After Melencolia I," I have recently received some interesting comments from Rob Sellars. Rob looks at Dürer's engraving from a Judaic point of view and describes the bat-like animal (at the top left) as a flying chimera which has a combination of the Tinshemet features of the "flying waterfowl and the earth mole." Rob's description has made me look harder at this beast, and in doing so, I have noticed some aspects that explain the very essence of "Melencolia I."

The Historical Context

The year 1514 CE came during a turbulent historical period, just three years before the Protestant Reformation, and the seemingly endless wars of religion which would follow. When Albrecht Dürer created "Melencolia I," he was expressing the philosophical, scientific, and humanist ideas of fifteenth-century Italy, and thus contributing to the beginning of a new phase of the Renaissance. Dürer was one of the first artists of Northern Europe to understand the importance of the Greek classics, and particularly the ideas of Plato and Socrates. The Renaissance idea was revolutionary, as it suggested that everyone was created "in imago Dei," in the image of God, and was capable of developing himself, or herself, to participate in the creation of the universe. This idea was now being gradually transmitted to all classes of society, thanks to the invention of the printing press; but it required a metaphorical language which could be deciphered by all, especially in a largely illiterate population. Although most of Dürer’s prints were intended for this wide public, his three master engravings (“Meisterstiche”), which include "Melencolia I," were aimed instead at a more discerning circle of fellow humanists and artists. The messages were more intellectual, using subtle symbols that would not be evident for common men, but could be decrypted by those initiated in the art.

The Metamorphosis of the Flying Creature

Detail of the bat-like beast at the top left-hand side of "Melencolia I" which was engraved by Albrecht Dürer in 1514

At first sight, the cartouche at the top left-hand side of Dürer's "Melencolia I" seems to be a flying bat, bearing the title of the engraving on its open wings. The length and thickness of the tail both look oversized, but we can suppose that Dürer was using his artistic licence to amplify the visual impact of the flying beast. Nearly all species of bats have tails, even if most (if not all) of these, are shorter and thinner than the one that Dürer has depicted.

But looking again with more attention, we can see that, quite weirdly, the body of the animal is placed above its wings, which is impossible unless the bat is flying upside-down! Closer examination suggests that this is not the case, as the mouth and eyes of the beast are clearly those of an animal with an upright head. All the same, we might well ask where the hind feet are, and how the creature can possibly make a safe landing without these!

Looking once again more closely, we can see another, even more troubling detail, in that the “wings,” which carry the title of the engraving, are in fact two large strips of ragged skin, ripped outwards from the belly, as if the animal has disembowelled itself!

Judging from the thickness of its tail and the form of its head, the airborne creature was initially a rat before it began its painful metamorphosis. It has since carried out an auto-mutilation, and is now showing its inner melancholy to the outer world, but at the same time flying free with its hard-earned wings!

Symbolically, the cartouche is telling us that ""Melencolia I" is a painful metamorphosis which precedes a liberating "Renaissance!""

How Melancholy leads to Renaissance

During 1514 CE the artist's mother, Barbara Dürer (née Holper), passed away, or “died hard” as he described it, and we can therefore suppose that Dürer’s grief would have been a strong catalyst of the very melancholic atmosphere depicted in his “Melencolia I.” The melancholy, referred to in the title of the engraving, is illustrated by an extraordinary collection of symbols that fill the scene. Some of these are tools associated with craft and carpentry. Others are objects and instruments that refer to alchemy, geometry or mathematics. In addition to the bat-like beast, the sky also contains what might be a moonbow and a comet. Further symbols include a putto seated on a millstone, and a robust winged person, also seated, which could well be an allegorical self-portrait. These, and many other symbols, are the object of multiple interpretations by various authors. Some scholars consider the engraving to be an allegory, which can be interpreted through the correct comprehension of the symbols, while others think that the ambiguity is intentional, and designed to resist complete interpretation. I tend to agree with the latter point of view, and think that the confusion symbolises the unfinished studies and works of the main melancholic figure; an apprentice angel, who believes that despite his worldly efforts, he lacks inspiration, and is not making sufficient progress.

Notwithstanding the melancholy that reigns, there is still hope: The 4 x 4 magic square, for example, has the same dimension as Agrippa's Jupiter square, a talisman that supposedly counters melancholy. The intent expression of the main winged person suggests a determination to overcome his doubts, and transcend the obstacles that continue to block his progression. Positive symbols of a resurrection or "Renaissance" are also plainly visible, not only in the hard-earned wings of the flying creature, but also in the growing wings that Dürer gives himself in his portrayal as the apprentice angel.

"Melencolia I" engraved by Albrecht Dürer in 1514

On page 171 of his book entitled "The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer," Erwin Panofsky considers that "Melencolia I" is the spiritual self-portrait of the artist. There is indeed much resemblance between the features of the apprentice angel, and those of the engraver in previous self-portraits.

Dürer had already adopted a striking religious pose in his last declared self-portrait of 1500 CE, giving himself a strong resemblance to Christ by respecting the iconic pictorial conventions of the time. In other presumed self-portraits, (but not declared as such), Dürer had also presented himself in a Christic manner; in his c.1493 "Christ as a Man of Sorrows;" and in his 1503 "Head of the Dead Christ." What is more, Dürer inserted his self-portraits in altarpieces; in 1506 for the San Bartolomeo church in Venice ("Feast of Rose Garlands"); in 1509 for the Dominican Church in Frankfurt ("Heller Altarpiece"); and in 1511 for a Chapel in Nuremberg's "House of Twelve Brothers" ("Landauer Altarpiece" or "The Adoration of the Trinity"). Thus Dürer was already a master of religious self-portraiture when he engraved "Melencolia I" in 1514, and he might well have continued in the same manner. But this time, probably because the theological, philosophical and humanistic ideas of the Renaissance were not only spiritually, but also intellectually inspiring, he went even further, and gave himself wings!


Passages of "The Historical Context" are inspired by the writings of Bonnie James, in her excellent article "Albrecht Dürer: The Search for the Beautiful In a Time of Trials" (Fidelio Volume 14, Number 3, Fall 2005), a publication of the Schiller Institute.  

Latest Development

After reading this article, Miguel Angel Amela (who like me, is not only interested in magic squares, but also in "Melencolia I") sent me his thanks by email, and enclosed "a paper of 2020 about a painful love triangle..." His paper is entitled "A Hidden Love Story" and interprets the "portrait of a young woman with her hair done up," which was first painted by Albrecht Dürer in 1497, and then reproduced in an engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, almost 150 years later in 1646. Miguel's story is captivating, and I wish to thank him for kindly authorising me to publish it here.