Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer
Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer depicts an enigmatic and gloomy winged female figure as a personification of melancholia. Holding her head in her hand, she stares past the busy scene in front of her. The foreground is strewn with symbols and tools associated with carpentry and craft workshops, including an hourglass, weighing scales, a hand plane and a saw. Objects relate to alchemy, geometry or numerology are also featured. Above and to the right of the figure is a structure with a magic square embedded in the wall and a ladder against the wall and leading beyond the frame. The sky contains a rainbow, a light source and a bat-like creature bearing the text “MELENCOLIA I”.
Dürer’s engraving is one of the most well-known old master prints, but, without a definitive interpretation. Dürer may have related melancholia with creative activity. The woman may be a representation of a Muse, awaiting inspiration but gloomy in the prospect that it will not return. Some art historians see the figure as pondering the nature of beauty or the value of artistic creativity in the light of rationalism. There is little documentation to provide insight into Dürer’s intent.
Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I has influenced many artists from the sixteenth century to current times. The print has attracted the interests of artists, poets, writers, historians and scientists. Its influence has also extended to The Passion façade of the Sagrada Família, which contains a magic square based on the magic square in Melencolia I.
4×4 Magic Square
On the face of the building is a 4×4 magic square, the first printed in Europe. The two middle cells of the bottom row giving the date of the engraving, 1514, which is also seen above Dürer’s monogram at bottom right step. The square follows the traditional rules of magic squares: each of its rows, columns, and diagonals adds to the same number, 34.
The unusual solid that dominates the left half of the image is a truncated rhombohedron. This shape is now known as Dürer’s Solid, and there have been numerous analyses of its mathematical properties.
Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) was born in Nuremberg, and his vast body of work includes engravings, prints, altarpieces, portraits and watercolours and academic books. Dürer established his reputation across Europe when he was still in his twenties due to his high-quality woodcut prints. He cultivated communications with the major Italian artists of his time, and from 1512 he was patronised by emperor Maximilian I.
Dürer’s introduced classical motifs into Northern art, and through his association with Italian artists and German humanists, he became one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. His authority was supported by his theoretical treatises, which covered mathematics, perspective, and proportions. Both the Lutheran and Episcopal Churches also commemorate Dürer.
- What do you think this image means?
- Title: Melencolia I
- Artist: Albrecht Dürer
- Year: 1514
- Type: Copper engraving on paper
- Dimensions: Height: 24.1 cm (9.4 ″); Width: 18.7 cm (7.3 ″) (plate & sheet)
- Museum: Art Gallery of South Australia
- Artist: Albrecht Dürer
- Born: 1471 – Nuremberg, Holy Roman Empire
- Died: 1528 (aged 56) – Nuremberg, Holy Roman Empire
- Nationality: German
- Movement: High Renaissance
- Notable works:
Explore the Art Gallery of South Australia
- “A break away!” by Tom Roberts
- “A holiday at Mentone” by Charles Conder
- “Dandenongs from Heidelberg” by Charles Conder
- “A Summer Morning” by Rupert Bunny
- “Circe Invidiosa” by John William Waterhouse
- “The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius” by John William Waterhouse
- Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer
- Masterpieces and Historic Objects of the Art Gallery of South Australia
- Art Gallery of South Australia
“If a man devotes himself to art,
much evil is avoided that happens otherwise if one is idle.”
– Albrecht Dürer
Photo Credit: 1) Albrecht Dürer [Public domain]