Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471–1528)
9 1/2 x 7 3/8 in. (24 x 18.5 cm)
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1943 (43.106.1)
Dürer's Melencolia I is one of three large prints of 151314 known as his Meisterstiche (master engravings). The other two are Knight, Death, and the Devil and Saint Jerome in His Study. Though they do not form a series in the strict sense, the prints do correspond to the three kinds of virtue in medieval scholasticismmoral, theological, and intellectualand they embody the complexity of Dürer's conception. Melencolia I is a depiction of the intellectual situation of the artist and is thus, by extension, a spiritual self-portrait of Dürer. In medieval philosophy, each individual was thought to be dominated by one of the four humors; melancholy, associated with black gall, was the least desirable of the four, and melancholics were considered most likely to succumb to insanity. Renaissance thought, however, also linked melancholy with creative genius; thus, at the same time that this idea changed the status of this humor, it made the self-conscious artist aware of the terrible risks that came with his gift.
The winged personification of Melancholy, seated dejectedly with her head resting on her hand, holds a caliper and is surrounded by other tools associated with geometry, the one of the seven liberal arts that underlies artistic creationand the one through which Dürer hoped to approach perfection in his own work. An influential treatise, De occulta philosophia of Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, almost certainly known to Dürer, probably holds the explanation for the number I in the title: creativity in the arts was the realm of the imagination, considered the first and lowest in the hierarchy of the three categories of genius. The next was the realm of reason, and the highest the realm of the spirit. It is ironic that this image of the artist, paralyzed and powerless, should exemplify Dürer's own artistic power at its superlative height.