Melencolia I

Melencolia I (B. 74; M., HOLL. 75)*engraving  *24 x 18.8 cm *1514
Albrecht Durer-Melencolia I-1514
The most famous of the many outstanding works by the genius of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Durer’s etching Melencolia I (Melancholy I), is replete with esoteric and alchemical  references and has been the subject of much debate and interpenetration. The title is taken from the German occultist Cornelius Agrippa’s theory of melancholy, in his influential book  On the Occult Philosophy he states that in artists Melencolia Imaginativa predominates over both mind and reason.

A winged figure, Lady Melancholy sits slumped surrounded by symbolic objects. In Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was a humour caused by an excess of black bile and her posture suggests the  contemplative attitude and the mental anguish produced in people who suffer with this temperament. Artists, philosophers, theologians and craftsmen were thought to particularly susceptible to melancholy and were often said to have a Saturnine nature, that is to be under the influence of the planet Saturn. Further allusions to Saturn can be found in the purse and keys which are traditional attributes of the patron god of melancholy.

Directly above Melancholy’s head is an hourglass showing the passing of time, and a magic square that adds up to 34 every which way. Additional references to alchemy can be found in the darkened countenance of the brooding figure, the so-called facies nigra, pointing to the adept that the first stage of the Great Work is nigredo (blackness), the putrefaction necessary for all creation. The geometric tools are symbols of various other stages of the magistery, leading up to the six-sided prism (imprinted with a faint human skull) which represents Prime Matter and the seven steps of the ladder, each rung a phrase in the Magnum Opus. The blazing comet in the sky and the rainbow heralds its final completion.

Contrary to the contemporary belief that melancholy has to be banished at all costs, either by chemical means or positive thinking, the Renaissance view of melancholy was that it was the necessary, preliminary stage of all creativity.  Without the putrefaction of melancholy you cannot take the first step on the journey that will led to a transformation of matter and, more importantly, the self. Only art can produce this metamorphosis.


45 thoughts on “Melencolia I

  1. Wow, this has so much to look at! What is it- a drawing? It’s hard to tell. I love the sad little cherub. I never see them looking sad. And that dog (?) is creepy…

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      1. When I’m sad, the whole world irritates the crap out of me, lol. The dog does look hungry but looks elongated or something… I think it’s amazing too. I’m going to look up etchings because I’m not sure how it’s done.

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      2. He was a master of etchings, woodcuts, paintings. He painted the first nude self portrait(I am pretty sure). He brought a new self consciousness into art. This paintings is seen by some as a spiritual self portrait.

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      3. Wow, the first nude selfie! 🙂 It’s funny, I just had a conversation today about how creative types tend to be moody. 😀 I guess melancholia is a good word for it. Happiness writes white, as you say. 🙂

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    1. It is indeed, and I didn’t know that. For some reason 34 is the traditional name of magic squares back in the day, I am not quite sure why. Maybe it has sometime to do with Christ dying at 33, the beginning of a new cycle, a rebirth and resurrection.

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  2. Mr. Cake, this is a wonderful write up on an amazing piece by Durer, the engraving is stunning and all the symbolism is remarkable. I’ve always been intrigued by it, and I’m glad you’ve explained the meaning behind much of the detail. I also like your final paragraph, especially, “…the Renaissance view of melancholy was that it was the necessary, preliminary stage of all creativity.” That made me smile. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. This was hard to write, alchemical symbolism is dense and willingly obscure. Susan Sontag once said that depression was Melancholy without the charm and I certainly don’t want to make light of suffering, however a certain sadness and the lucidity it brings is a perquisite for art I believe.

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  3. Oh, you know how I struggle with this concept… and I really cringe when people romanticize the pain and suffering of the artist, writer, musician. It’s difficult. And yet I understand it… It’s such a complicated work. An etching? It has so many little details to explore. I wish I knew more about the symbolism. Fascinating stuff. Very Mystic Cake. Love it.

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    1. I believe Durer’s and the Renaissance view was a lot more nuanced that a mere romanticised view of Melancholy, it was the first step only, however it was necessary for the creative process. I certainly found their view more appealing than the reductive bio-chemical model embraced today, which also means that drugs companies can sell more drugs. I love alchemical symbolism though it is obscure, dense and allusive. Mystic Cake is back in a heavy fog.

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      1. I certainly don’t disagree with the idea of the dark side being the more imaginative or creative side. You know I embrace it myself, Cake. Perhaps it is a necessary step in the process. My problem lies in the near glorification of ‘madness.’ That it is somehow an elevated state. But in truth, for the sufferer, is anguish. Now, the flip side of that coin is that in treating the ‘madness’ will it shut off the creative flow? And in turn will it rob the artist of his life’s work? Can the painter no longer paint? The writer know longer write, the composer no longer hear the music? This is what I mean when I say I struggle with it. I’m not sure what effect that would have on the individual – what price is one willing to pay for ease of pain? As for the modern approach, I whole heartedly agree. We are no longer expected to cope, we are expected to cover it up. And big pharma cashes in.

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      2. It’s only part of the process, it doesn’t have to be glorified, only accepted as part of life and emotions. And contrary to opinion, been afflicted doesn’t make somebody an artist, or particular interesting either. Was Sylvia Plath depressed? Yes but being depressed doesn’t make somebody Sylvia Plath. However an artist needs to bring back something from their journey to the centre of the night otherwise they stop being artists. I mentioned in a previous comment that depression is Melancholy without the charm, I suppose the artist jobs to supply the charm.

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  4. Wonderful post: it is from the depths indeed that creativity rises. Dark are the depths and only the strong pull themselves out, back into the daylight. To create is to be strong in the belief that the work is worthwhile and the journey more important than the ending.

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