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Art and Images in Psychiatry
Sep 2012

Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I

Author Affiliations


Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012;69(9):874. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2012.108

Why is that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or poetry or the arts are clearly melancholics, and some of them to such an extent as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile? –Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Problema XXX.11(p18)

As psychopathology, melancholy refers to a deep and enduring depression, a sense of profound and painful emptiness that is relentless and cannot be long endured. Untreated melancholic depression may result in suicide. Yet, in common parlance, melancholy may refer to a passing state of mind, sometimes emotionally painful and at other times a pensive or nostalgic state of mind. Metaphorically, it is a dark feeling that may be projected onto the night or the seasons, the melancholic months of winter, or on a place where a tragedy occurred. Yet its etymology is more ancient. Melancholy is derived from melanos and khole —black bile, a secretion of the spleen and one of the body's 4 humors (blood, phlegm, choler [or yellow bile], and melancholy [or black bile]) recognized by Hippocrates (460-370 BCE). Such qualities were linked to the 4 elements: earth, water, fire, and air. In antiquity, the humors corresponded to the cosmic elements and divisions of time. The humors, according to how they were combined, controlled one's existence and behavior and defined one's character.1 Saturn held sway over the realm of melancholy, of the mind that contemplates and investigates; the mood engendered was saturnine.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), German. Melencolia I, 1514. Engraving, 24 × 18.8 cm (9.4 × 7.4 in). Private collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.

The humors, as categories, originated with physicians who sought to reduce the differences among individuals to definite types. They taught that the 4 humors were balanced through opposition within each of 2 pairs of qualities: warm vs cool, and dry vs moist.2 The balance of these qualities led to variations of emotionality, rationality, and behavior. The second-century physician Claudius Galen (131-200 CE)2 elaborated on the Hippocratic humors when proposing 9 temperamental types (from the Latin temperare, which means “to mix”). Ideally, the complementary qualities were in balance, but, more commonly, 1 of the 4 was dominant. The remaining 4 he named melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric after the humors. These were expressed when an excess of 1 humor dominated the complementary pair; for example, when warm and moist dominated cool and dry in the sanguine or when cool and dry dominated warm and moist in the melancholic. Temperament, too, was affected by the seasons; thus, in the spring, the body was warmer and more moist, and people were more sanguine. In the fall, however, people were more melancholy and potentially sullen, gloomy, and irritable. When black bile mixed with blood, melancholy was coupled with joy; when black bile mixed with phlegm, melancholy was coupled with inertia; and when black bile mixed with yellow bile, melancholy was coupled with violence or frenzy.1 Galen's classification was the first typology based on perceptible differences in emotionality or affectivity.

The engraving Melencholia I (cover) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is the most recognizable illustration of the melancholy temperament and the most written about.3 Dürer, generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist, was a painter, printmaker, draftsman, and art theorist. He was the only Northern artist of his time to fully engage the Italian Neoplatonic dialogue between scientific theory and art. Dürer's work includes altarpieces, religious works, portraits and self-portraits, and copper engravings.

In Dürer's time, the melancholic temperament was thought to be “the basis for intellectual and imaginative accomplishments . . . the wellspring from which came wit, poetic creations, deep religious insights . . . and profound philosophical considerations.”4(p99) In Melencolia I, an archaic spelling, the “I” refers to the first of German humanist writer Cornelius Agrippa's 3 types of melancholia, Melencholia Imaginativa. Here, the artist's “imagination” predominates over “mind” or “reason.”

In Melencolia I, the winged personification of melancholy (cover) sits on a low stone slab in an unfinished building facing objects that symbolize the arts and sciences. She appears dejected and disheveled. Her eyes are more suggestive of melancholic temperament than deep melancholy while her head rests on her clenched fist in the classic melancholic pose. Her face is cast over by a dark saturnine shadow. Her keys, in disarray, are attached to her belt; her purse is collapsed on the ground. Holding a caliper, she is surrounded with other tools associated with geometry, the first of the 7 liberal arts that underlie creative artistic expression. Stymied, creatively paralyzed, the ground around her littered with the tools of artistic craftsmanship (a plane, a saw, a ruler, pincers, a mold for melting, tongs for coal, and an inkpot with a pen), she is “a thinking person in perplexity.”5(p57) Her putto (the childlike figure) is perched on a grindstone scribbling on a slate. Melencholia is printed on the wings of a bat, which, along with the malnourished dog, is emblematic of melancholy. The passage of time is shown in the hourglass, and the need for restored balance is reflected in the pair of empty scales.

Melencholia wears a leafy moist wreath symbolic of literature, perhaps as an antidote to the dryness of melancholy. Above her, as a corrective, Dürer places a bell and a “magic square” emblematic of the healing power of sanguine Jupiter to counteract the influence of Saturn and as a palliative to dispel worry and fear. This 4 × 4 square containing the numbers 1 through 16 is remarkable. Not only does each row, column, and diagonal line of numbers add up to 34, but the 4 digits in the corners, the 4 digits in the central squares, and the 4 digits in the top left, top right, bottom left, and bottom right quarters also add up to 34. The 2 middle cells of the bottom row give the date of the engraving: 1514.

The rainbow in the twilight sky at the far left may offer hope that melancholy will resolve and creativity will emerge anew.

Klibansky R, Panofsky E, Saxl F. Saturn and Melancholy. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc; 1964
Kagen J. Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature. New York, NY: Basic Books; 1994
Bartrum G. Albercht Dürer and His Legacy: The Graphic Work of a Renaissance Artist. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2002
Berrios GE. The History of Mental Symptoms: Descriptive Psychopathology Since the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press; 1996
Panofsky E. The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1955