essays / Melancholia I

In 1514, Albert Dürer depicted Melancholia within an engraving. Throughout the piece, knowledge and ingenuity contrast with despair and confusion. The thick curtain of intricately complex symbols describes battles between depression and hope, reason and spirit. The engraving incessantly teases the mind, presenting conflicting visual techniques and symbols. Dürer conceals symbols and ideals in initially simple elements. Dürer’s accomplishes his depiction of Melancholia with a dark and despairing tone, while keeping glimmers of hope.

Any discussion of Dürer’s piece requires a prior understanding of Melancholia. Alchemists believed the human body consisted of four essential humors. Of these humors, Melancholia supposedly results from an imbalance: an excess of black bile. Characterized as a state of despair, unrest, and anxiety, Melancholia manifests itself through sleeplessness and irritability.

Dürer’s central figure embodies the essence of Melancholy. She presents many oddities and disparate proportions in her body and countenance. While her face is certainly feminine, her build appears more masculine. She looks distraught, depressed, and despondent in her pursuits. Dürer presents conflicting emotions of hope, depression, irritability, and restlessness. Stuck in her pensive mindset, in her intense rational thought, Melancholy is absorbed in her internal world and her musings; she is not alarmed by her surrounding oddities. Neither the disfigured goat nor the moping cherub disturb her; she is oblivious of their presence. Melancholia carries a compass as if striving to locate directions to another conclusion to an unknown destination in the puzzle. This compass indicates optimism amidst depression. More optimistic than the cherub, Melancholy holds a compass, signifying her attempt to bring direction and rationality to her current wandering.

Dürer’s visual techniques echo Melancholy’s imbalance. The light source and composition, while understandable, are enough off-key to be disconcerting and irritating. The light and horizons are unnatural, exaggerated, and confusing. Despite the daylight like clarity, the light’s rays suggest a dark and ominous coming night. This uncanny juxtaposition of day and night presents the possibility that a sphere of light could extend from a bright and luminous planet instead of a sun. The white light from an unseen source unsettles the viewer. Dürer accomplishes the punctual distinction using sharp and fairly uniform rays radiating from the light source, but using less defined and even no lines to highlight the characters. For instance, Melancholy’s sleeve and dress are not hatched, but her face is mostly shaded, and not hatched. Hatching is using varied length and intensity of uniform lines to depict depth and light within an woodcut or engraving. It allows for greater variation and contrast between light and dark, by tricking the eye. The visual elements, emphasized eerily by the intensely luminous light offset a realistic artist presentation. The light’s cast is cold and dry.

In addition to the light and the flow, Dürer tampers with the vanishing points and the horizon lines. Although the structure and composition of the piece is rather traditional, Dürer still allows it to be jarring. The top directional line from the rhomboidal leads to the ladder rung and to the cherub’s eye, a rather logical directional line. However, this straightforward artistic element is broken up Melancholia’s wing, thereby disturbing the viewer once again. The carved truncated rhombohedral stone breaks the flow of horizontal lines. Dürer refuses to allow any comforting continual horizontal elements. In addition, although the rhomboidal disrupts, it also brings unity to the piece. It provides a coherent connection between the parts, providing defined and varied vanishing points.

The scene surrounding Melancholy matches the feeling, personality, and complexity of the visual composition. The tower of wisdom, the impossible sky, the depressed cherub, and the warped goat, create a distressing and unpleasant scene. Melancholia’s compass’ line points up to the planet of light in the sky, symbolizing an escape from her predicament. However, since the planet’s identity is unknown, the security of her potential escape is indefinite. Will it be another disturbing and unsettling environment. The cherub, unlike the stereotypical happy cherub, is depressed and despondent to Melancholia. The stone is incredibly sinister, when inspected closely, a pale outline of a skull appears etched into the stone. Finally, the tower of knowledge presents many opportunities and the fruits of previously pursued ideas, works, and time shown by the numerous symbols that surround it.

At first glance, the most obvious symbolism and most intricate puzzle of the tower of wisdom is the square of numbers near the top, often called the magic square. The magic square is an intricate four-by-four square. Of its numerous patterns and combinations of numbers, the square’s most common and interesting attributes: it contains the date of the piece, follows the rules of a normal magic square, and contains a perfect ratio of numbers. First, the magic square contains the date of the engraving in the bottom two numbers, 1514. Its four quadrants, corners, and centers, when summed, equal the same number of 34. This number is known as the magic constant in alchemy. Furthermore, any pair of numbers symmetrically placed about the center of the square sums to 17, a prime number. The magic square represents an inspiring escape from the depression in intricate logical thinking. Lastly, the word written on the top of the piece “Melancholia” is an anagram, decoding to LIMEN CAELO, or the gateway in heaven. Yet again, Dürer provides inspiring hints of hope in spiritual and intellectual progress. Amongst chaos exists solution, order and potential balance.

Much of the engraving looks initially upsetting yet still offers a positive escape. It is littered with tools, alchemy, symbols, puzzles, and signs of doomsday. An emptying hourglass, a bell, and scales adorn the outside wall of the tower of wisdom. The hourglass suggests that time is always running out, that time is always judging us, and that time cannot be reversed. The hourglass also symbolizes the rationality and linear nature of the world, which cannot be escaped, although escape and evasion have been fantasized numerous times. The hourglass can be seen to further symbolize the emptying past, and the dawning future. The bell represents the charm of music and the intrigue of wisdom. The scales are another attribute of wisdom, of true judgment and of equality. Wisdom’s products are balanced from pleasing to the spirit, and to the mind, to limited to time, and are judged equally.

The further surroundings of the print depict revised tools of artists, scientists, and alchemists of the time. The tools are not merely tools, but represent the past progress and innovation which led to the creation of greater tools and products. The underworld’s dominance is seen in the goat at the bottom of Melancholia’s feet and is prominent in the lower levels of disorder and irrational thinking. contrarily, the ladder above the tower of wisdom shows a possible ascent into heaven, a final escape into paradise from the in-between land of despair and knowledge. In some ways, Melancholia is an embodiment of purgatory, where ideas and people are tested.

The apocalyptic views within the piece are fairly evident as embodied in the demonic goat and the emptying hourglass. The signs are clear reminders that at a time the world will come to further judgment. In an odd way, the engraving provides a hope to the melancholic scene, that there is a further purpose and that word will not go unheralded while Melancholy may be a discouraging result of hard work and effort, Dürer suggest that the unpleasant state is temporary. Often strife, imbalance will have a further purpose, and their work will not go to waste. is promoted through effort and work, when it seems that the work is going nowhere, it doesn’t come from laziness, or other attributes of that nature.

Alchemy is very present in the symbolism within the engraving. The ladder’s rungs, the rhombohedral, and even the many tools, are symbols for Saturn, rationality, and alchemy. Alchemy is symbolized by rationality, metals, and Saturn. Melancholy, as noted earlier, is linked to thinkers and pursuers of knowledge. Pursuing knowledge requires tools and produces goods of different qualities. The tools littered throughout Dürer’s engraving are tools of the thinkers and alchemists of that time. The ladder’s seven rungs symbolize the seven major metals of alchemy, along with an ascent to heaven. In some ways, Dürer is mocking the art of alchemy through presenting Melancholy with many symbols and themes that point to or parallel with alchemy. The temporary defeat of alchemy, not being able to make gold, is a setback and a temporary defeat, but some discoveries of the alchemists have brought prosperity and wisdom to the world as a whole.

Initially, Dürer’s Melancholia looks simple, although cluttered. Upon further inspection, many different symbols and visual elements of the piece jump out. Analyzed over the years, the theme depicts the dark emotions of despair and irritability. Looking further, a conflict between despair and hope, rationality and spirituality is seen, that soon the setbacks will be removed and true enlightenment will be found. This theme relates to symbols of alchemy and reason, that they should go to useful and true ends, and not be dead ends. Artistically and rationally, Dürer produced a brilliant work of art, and regarded as the greatest artist of the Northern German Renaissance in the fifteen hundreds.