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.