Art. History. Culture.
This, dear readers, is a belated Part Two of a spread on German art, inspired by Deutschland’s World Cup victory in July. Today, we study German master Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Dürer was in action at almost exactly the same time as Lucas Cranach the Elder, but died sooner. His influence reached across Europe, largely in thanks to his incredible printmaking abilities. Now let’s face it: researching different processes of printmaking can be extremely boring. There are linoleum prints, lithographs, chromolithographs, engravings, etchings, woodcuts and woodblock prints and so on and so forth. To my ignorant self, these all pretty similar. A surface is carved, covered in ink or pigment, and stamped onto another surface to make an image. The many steps and layers of these printing processes of course make it much more complicated than that. So complicated, in fact, that it’s hard not to get lost and space out on it all. I mainly point this out to give attention to the choice artists such as Dürer made to create art using methods of different complexities than oil on canvas. Not only did printing processes offer challenging avenues in which to explore new artistic mediums, but they also gave artists the chance to expose new and larger audiences to their work due to the innovations in reproduction that the print offered.
Albrecht Dürer, a Nuremberg lifer, was a theorist and mathematician in addition to an artist. His talents were not limited to a single substance. He created many intriguing self-portraits in oils throughout his career such as the one above. He did a number of masterful studies of animals. This famously ravishing observation of a hare was painted in watercolor.
Dürer did this incredible pen and ink observation of praying hands.
In the years after 1500, Dürer got busy on the woodcut. He explored a variety of subjects, from biblical stories to superstitions of witchcraft. Some of the most famous works in his entire oeuvre are prints and in the years after 1510, he created a group of what would become known as his master prints. They are Knight, Death and the Devil, Saint Jerome in his Study, and Melancholia I. None of these are related to each other, but stand as examples of virtuoso printmaking that this German Renaissance generation, and especially Albrecht Dürer, helped revolutionize.
My favorite Dürer piece, above all, is Melancholia I. I love a good allegory, and this print is full of rich symbolism and mystery.
The title of this print was of course taken from the words inscribed across the wings of the flying bat in the background. The common interpretation is that the “I” (a letter, not a number) refers to melencholia imaginativa, a variation of melancholy illness pertaining to imagination, when the person’s imagination dominates over mind and reason. In other words, the creative mind suffers this type of melancholy, which loans itself to the interpretation that this is a type of spiritual self portrait for Dürer.
In medieval medicine, melancholy was a condition of the four humors, the other three being sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic. Melancholy was considered the worst of these and believed to be the condition that most often lead to insanity. Each of these humors, then, was a medical condition as well as a personality or temperament. Erwin Panofsky’s study from the 1960’s, Saturn and Melancholy, is still consulted as one of the foremost sources on the subject of melancholy in the arts. In his study, Panofsky outlines the Medieval and Renaissance medical and social views on melancholy, its representation in various artistic cultures, and the history of Saturn, the ancient deity associated with the condition. Panofsky’s study, therefore, provided invaluable insight into my own study of the subject in relation to Francisco de Goya’s fascinating and terrifying re-imagination of it.
The sufferer of melancholy was said to display symptoms of anxiety, deep depression, fatigue, mildly pensive or nostalgic states of mind, fear, misanthropy, frenzy, or madness in its most dangerous forms. The melancholic was said to have an excess of black bile, making black its symbolic tone/shade/color. Renaissance thought, however, uplifted melancholy as a disease of heroes and geniuses. Because of his high intellect and talent, the hero or genius was associated with auras of sinister sublimity (probably influenced by Greek mythology), superhuman greatness, high spiritual exaltation, and dispositions of accursed madness (Panofsky, 16). The gifted artist, always considered in the realm of geniuses, was thus connected with melancholy because of his imaginative power. The artist was thought by the ancients to work in a state of inspired madness, often referred to as mania (Karp, 6). The artist, therefore, may have been self-conscious of his or her gift as a simultaneous curse, if indeed aware of being prone to a certain type of madness. It is in this context in which we can find the interpretation of Melencolia I as Albrecht Dürer’s philosophical self portrait.
In his print, Dürer shows the winged personification of melancholy. For some reason, allegorical figures are always women… It is fascinating to see that centuries ago, when geniuses and heroes were always men, an artist of similar caliber would personify his condition in the female form. Most likely though, he did not think twice about it because the artistic convention of allegorical figures as female had long since been established. The figure is seated in a space that appears to be a type of porch in front of a house on a river. She sits in the traditional melancholic pose with her head rested in her hands, slightly hunched over, her brow furrowed and cast in shadow. The laurel wreath on her head is symbolic of genius and she is surrounded by other symbols of high intellect. The caliper in her hand and other tools scattered around her refer to geometry, the liberal art that underlies artistic perfection, that which Dürer aspired to. The putto sitting next to her echoes her hunched over pose. Above the two figures, an empty balancing scale hangs on one wall and an hourglass and magic square on the other. The square is based on the number 34, with the square’s center, corners and quadrants adding up to 34, alluding to mathematical genius. Other symbols of talent and genius are present in the globe, hammer and polyhedron (architecture), and the spectacular still life of scattered woodworking tools in the foreground. The sun is bursting in the distance and a rainbow hovers over the banks of the river, framing the bat whose wings carry Dürer message as it flies away and looks back over its shoulder to meet our gaze.
Dürer’s Melencolia I has been beloved for ages and inspired many copies and similar themes. It has been taken as symbolic of the plight of the creative mind. Artists, philosophers, poets, theologians, and many other intellectual types have all seen themselves in this print. They, too, have echoed the pose of the melancholic angel. They, too, have sat in pensive moods, brooding over their own wistfulness or fantasizing of new worlds or ideas. Like Dürer and his melancholic angel, they can merely sit with their heads resting in their hands, searching for that new inspirational thought. If the search is too lengthy or difficult, will they go completely mad? Perhaps if they have an excess of black bile, there is no avoiding it. Such is the curse of the imaginative mind.
Karp, Diane. “Madness, Mania, Melancholy: The Artist as Observer.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 80, no. 342 (Spring, 1984), 1-24.
Klibansky, Raymond, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art. New York: Basic Books Inc., 1964.
Nordström, Folke. Goya, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the Art of Goya. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1962.