The aim of this essay is to study Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I with a view to understanding why Dürer chose it as a subject for a print and what relevance the items in the picture have to the subject. Also was this print typical of Dürer’s prints or was it special in terms of its subject matter and execution. It also aims to look at whether melancholy was the subject of pictures before 1514 and whether Dürer’s print influenced other artists.
Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514) is a portrait format engraving measuring 239 x 189 mm. It would have been engraved on a copper plate. The British Museum has this print mounted in an ivory mount with rounded corners. The window in the mount has a covering of very glossy cellophane which made it difficult to see some of the details easily as it caught the light. This is a shame as the detail is much finer in the museum copy.
‘In the years 1513 and 1514 the production of woodcuts and paintings ceased altogether’. (Panofsky, 2005, P. 151) Also at this time Dürer’s godfather the printer Anton Koberger and his mother died so it was a time of great sadness for the artist. Melencolia I is one of three prints which come from the years 1513-1514 which have come to be known as the ‘meisterstiche’ or master engravings. The other two master engravings are St Jerome in his Study (1514) and Knight, Death and the Devil (1513). These three prints are similar in size and also contain a comparable complexity and were perhaps aimed at the more educated collector.
Greek medicine had the body filled with four fluids, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile which if out of balance affected the body. These were the four humours; which were the sanguine humour which is associated with blood, phlegmatic humour which is associated with phlegm, choleric humour associated with yellow bile and melancholic humour associated with black bile. The first time that the four humours were put forward in a text was in De Natura Hominis (on the Nature of Man) written by Polybus the son in law of Hippocrates in the 4th Century B.C. (In Our Time, 2007); the subject was taken up by Galen and spread further with the humanists’ focus on the classics. The other things connected to black bile were the planet Saturn, the season of autumn, the element of earth, cold and dry and the bodily organ of the spleen. To keep the body in balance was thought to be achieved by giving the body the right food to correct an imbalance or by removing something from it which could be by bloodletting or inducing vomiting for example.
Before Dürer’s print of 1514 Melancholy had tended to be something illustrated in medical books rather than as an artistic subject. It was also portrayed on calendars, for example the Morgan Library and Museum has a series of woodcuts from Deutsche Kalendar of 1498 which showed each of the four humours in a woodcut roundel. Melancholy which is cold and dry is illustrated by an old couple with the man seated and with his upper body and head resting on a table. These have all had colour added as woodcuts often did.
Panofsky, E. (2005) The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, United States, Princeton Paperbacks
In Our Time – The Four Humours (2007) BBC Radio 4, 20 December [Online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008h5dz (accessed 1 May 2015)