The word ‘melancholy’ itself perhaps best sums up the feeling of Albreacht Dürer’s engraving. It is thought provoking and emotionally charged, with exact precision and lack of clarity in equal measures. If anything can be extracted from the image at first glance is that there is a lot going on. The engraving is made up of numerous separate images, each with their own fascinating story and individual status. It contains both geometric and irregular shapes, and is a complex mixture of objects, images and human forms depicted in a realistic manner. From the thoughtful human figure in the foreground to smaller less obvious images of the bell and cherub, the image is essentially a collage of individual items which arguably have no common characteristics. It is this chaotic nature which is purposely used as a method of representing the confusion of the state of melancholy.
Albreacht Dürer’s character has often been explored while evaluating his artwork. We understand that the artist was a tortured individual, who suffered from bouts of depression, paranoia, and deep unhappiness:
“Dürer seems to have united a large measure of exigency in everything he does, as if work was a surrogate of happiness.” (Beckett 1994, p.152) In a way, the engraving may provide us with a glimpse into the true mind of Dürer. Perhaps the reserved and gentle aristocrat Dürer wished to portray in his self-portraits was only a mask for a complex individual with the ability to create such a brooding and emotional piece as Melencolia.
“Melencolia 1 is a depiction of the intellectual situation of the artist and is thus by extension, a spiritual self portrait of Dürer.” (metmuseum.org) While examining the piece it is important that we take into account the period of history it was created. Lambert (1966, p.7/8) describes the Renaissance as:
‘a “new birth and an incarnation” – of man with in his total humanity, the full unity of his being…Another passion was the thirst for knowledge, a thirst which for some – Uccello for instance – was totally absorbing, limitless and intoxicating. In the middle ages, the image maker worked in a spirit of humble defence which even now manages to awake a pang of nostalgia in the heart; the Renaissance artist on the other hand worked in a terrifying spirit of intellectual arrogance: is there anything more icily regular than some of than some of Piero della Fansca’s geometrical expositions, all mind and no heart? ’
Dürer’s Melenclia is in my view a combination of both nostalgia and emotion which was crucial to the Gothic period, and the exploration of mind through clean lines and detail which developed in the Renaissance. Melencolia not only breaks tradition for the Renaissance period, it breaks habit for Dürer’s art on the whole. The realism seen in the paintings “Landscape View of the Aro Valley” (1495) and the “Virgin of the Rosary” (1506) were in the period of course ground-breaking masterpieces in their own right, but did not in my opinion reach the level of raw emotion and complexity seen in the Apocalypse series of engravings. The complex nature of the engraving makes it extremely difficult to evaluate on the whole, and as with many works of art is open to contention and varying understandings. With that in mind it is perhaps easier to focus on one aspect of the image in order to provide a deeper understanding of the work and its context.
The tools of Geometry which we see scattered idly at the feet of the character of Melancholy reflect in a sense Dürer’s fascination with the principles of mathematics, perspective and ideal proportions both in terms of art and theology in actual life. The nails saw and woodshavings represent human society’s fascination with geometrical symmetry and perfection. This was a sensation which was especially heightened through the realism and search for