For centuries, melancholy had been treated as the “disease of the intellectuals”, and the work can be seen to pay a tribute to this idea. The character’s face, supported on his left hand, shows the symbolic gesture of the savant fatigue (“tired scientist”), that in resignation seems to wonder what anything is for; the temporary sadness that hangs over his face, acts as a self-imposed darkness, blocking knowledge in a self-proclaimed prophecy. Adding to the expression and gesture all the symbolical content that the work possesses, and it makes clear that Durer portrays one of the moments of the process of acquiring new knowledge (the journey of scientific and philosophical breakthrough) towards the enlightened “intuitive intellect”; the hazy midsts of doubt and resignation before the moment of awareness and discovery. Although melancholia was associated to insanity in medieval times, in the Renaissance, the emotion became associated with the creative genius, making the self-conscious artist aware of the risks accompanying his own ‘gift’; melancholia became the emotion of creative pursuits, a necessary emotion, one of the many steps that defines the path of creation. In this perspective, the being Dürer creates (either human, angel or half of each), is lost in the midst of a creative pursuit. Melancholia is the emotion of scientist and the artist, as in the Renaissance there was no distinction between both. Sustaining this idea, is also the possibility of the “I” referring to the first of the three types of melancholy defined by the German humanist writer Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), described as Melancholia Imaginativa in the Three Books of Occult Philosophy (1533), which leaves the artist bound to “imagination”, and emphasizes the predominance of imagination over “mind” or “reason”. This affected artists who relied more on their imagination rather than rational logic or intuition. It is another type of melancholia, associated with the creative process. Although in modernity melancholy starts to be associated with a pathological state, the powerful associations of the emotion captured in the engraving still reverberates its original meaning across time.
The work is filled with symbolical content; most of which seems to be associated with scientific creations, making a tribute to the process of understanding itself. The magic square, located in the upper right-hand corner of the engraving, has a magic constant of 34 (as the numbers in each of the four corners and the numbers in each 2×2 square, including the middle four blocks, all add up to 34) which makes it a gnomon magic square; as a reference to the time it was created, Dürer added the year of the engraving 1514, appearing as 15 and 14 in the middle of the bottom row. Dürer’s mother died that same year, which would also explain part of his melancholy. It is believed that the top row of the magic square shows the full date of Dürer mother’s death. The scale, an ancient symbol of justice and balance, as well as a ladder, which heads to heaven, may symbolize the Neoplatonic ascension of the soul through philosophy; in this perspective it can be seen to be a reference to “Jacob’s ladder” (described in the Old Testament in as a staircase to heaven from Jacob’s dream); the seven-step ladder is also a common feature of alchemical symbolism, where the steps may represent the seven metals, the operations of alchemy and the associated celestial organisms. During the Renaissance, a dog lying at the feet of the owner, just like the one in this image lies on the angel’s feet, was considered to be a symbol of resistance and courage, of perseverance and dedication. Here, the quiet dog that seems to be asleep, may also represent a control over carnal desires. The carpentry tools, on the other hand, represent the manual arts, with which one could build, perhaps, useful instruments for the knowledge work itself. The compass in his hand is reminiscent of geometry – highly important in the 16th and 17th centuries. The chiming bell portrays both good and evil and symbolizes consecration. With a creative sound, the bell’s clapper serves as a mystical symbol of everything suspended between earth and heaven, in limbo. The hourglass universally represents time, and, in this case, probably signifies that people are continually running out of time, which alludes to the passage of life – death. The background shows a seascape of calm waters interrupted by the flickering sun and an arch that resembles a rainbow. These may be interpreted as ominous signs of the divine presence in nature.
Melancholy has wings and from her belt hangs keys and a money bag, symbolizing power and wealth. She is surrounded by measuring instruments; which metaphorically can mean that she ‘measures’ the quality of the artist. The keys she is holding are usually linked to knowledge, initiation and liberation, but can also symbolize mystery. Furthermore, the fact that she has wings, may mean she is somewhat of a divine being, holding the keys to unlock the divine knowledge which is at the foundation of all of Renaissance masterpieces and great scientific progress. The watercress wreath, on one hand, seems to counteract the dryness of such melancholy temperament, as it is a symbol of victory and success – perhaps the further state of mind in the creative process. Further, the putto (little angel) is perhaps the antithesis of the larger winged figure: concentrated, he works on his chisel as if he notes something in a notebook, showing no trace of sadness; and is also said to be a representation of the omnipresence of God. On the other hand, the state of the dog, skinny, in poor shape, sleeping in a collected position, reflects the melancholic state of the world, serving as a metaphor for earthly misery which haunts mankind, and the doubt that haunts the genius mind before being enlightened with divine inspiration. The fact Dürer chose a greyhound, instead of any other dog, is also very pertinent to its interpretation; this breed is the only one mentioned in the bible (Proverbs 30:29-31, King James Version); this breed was also close to extinction around this time due to famine, which is also indicated in his physiognomy. And finally, the background portrayed as a spectacle contextualizes all of these aspects, and may be an indicative of that divine inspiration: the arch that resembles a rainbow (which relates to the peace and serenity of a fulfilled mind, after the stormy moment of doubt; and, according to norse mythology, it acts as a bridge between the mortal and the immortal – usually associated with war -, in this case, between the the artist and the divine) – which in addition with the Jacob’s ladder reinforces the connection between Earth and Heaven; the bright and flickering sun is a premonition of glory; and the calm waters already reveal the ultimate breakthrough is already at one’s reach. All of these elements bring the concept and struggles of melancholy to its pinnacle in the form of a very complex allegory: while the tools, the geometric figures and the putto represent the creative prospects, and the background indicates the glory of conquering creation, the miserable hound and the winged being endowed with sadness and pensiveness, creates a full and grand narrative of melancholy and its connection to the process of creation of an intellectual. There are also theories which indicate the winged figure may be a self-portrait, which further proves the connection of the melancholic concept to the creation process of the artist.
Another main perspective/idea presented is that of an artistic-philosophical intuition which Dürer used to link melancholy with the idea of imagination’s confusing and blurring knowledge. According to this theory, which is based on Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) views on imagination, this connection is present in his previous print, Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), where the melancholy of the Renaissance is said to fade away, in a time that knowledge becomes connected with joy, as long as it is free from the shadows of imagination produced by superstitions, fears or beliefs. To note is the fact that this perspective, linking melancholy with a tortured process and the struggles of creativity and imagination, might be a mistaken interpretation, as the creative process at the time was still seen as a scientific method of which it had nothing to do with mere imagination, a thought that would only shift by the ends of the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, melancholy was seen as a must have emotion of doubt characteristic of the creative process, in order to create the greatest masterpieces.
The image portrays the intellectual situation of Dürer and can be seen as his spiritual self-portrait. They also represent the density of the artist’s mind, as he sees himself as a true artist, enveloped in an expected melancholic state, awaiting divine inspiration to flow over him. In a way, Dürer is trying to cure his own pain by expressing it in this piece. In this case, he explores an idea which he has explored before in Saint Jerome in His Study (1514), as he creates a melancholic scene with an animal at the saint’s feet as well, which indicates Dürer’s fascination with the theme. In this case, by portraying himself as a personified angel, a winged and divine being, he asserts his vision that the divine power flows in his hands in the moment of creation, and that he closely relies on it to achieve greatness.
The central aspect of the work is the figure, which is presented in the foreground on a bigger, occupying a fair portion of the composition. The artist made use of geometry, mixing religious imagery with others of everyday life. The development of linear perspective and proportion during the Renaissance, is incorporated and used in this image in the elements and the way they reach the background, and is especially visible in the architectural structure at the right.
The contrast and volume in this piece is achieved by the employment of chiaroscuro, by the use of hatching, leaving blank the areas of light and filling with lines the darker areas. Light sources are thus considered in two distinct ways: the sun’s rays, and a secondary light source seen in the reflections on the left side of the angel’s robes and other elements present in the composition. By relying on the technique of woodcut engraving, Dürer prints the composition using different blocks of wood, with different striations in order to achieve the chiaroscuro modelling of light and volume.
Although the concept had been previously explored by a few artists in the Renaissance, this work was one of the first to express what many classify artists and scientists as complex and with melancholy tendencies. One of the most well known prints by Old Masters, it shows for the first time, a complex narrative created around the struggles and joys of creation, yet full of mystifying symbolism. His portrayal of melancholy would come to inspire future artists to deeper reflect on the subject.
The work had no contextual influence regarding its content as the artist found inspiration for the trio of works from Plato and human personality traits. The writings of Cornelius Agrippa (1686-1535) about melancholy which conceded melancholy positive connotations, connected with intellectual genius, which led to great accomplishments in the arts. He also explores the melancholy concept in some of his previous works, like in the Christ as Man of Sorrows (c. 1493), and another print from the same year Saint Jerome in His Study (1514) . This work caused (and still causes) great perplexity all over the world; as Vasari put it, an “image of an image”, one that fascinates the world; it was considered as a “battlefield of interpretations” or, in the words of Philip Sohn, a “swamp of interpretations”, and is Dürer’s most studied work by a number of different intellectuals (historians, astronomers, mathematicians and even massons). This engraving served as a foundation for the many melancholic self-portrait drawings of Henry Fuseli, for example Self-Portrait (1780s), and served as great inspiration for Friedrich’s woodcut Seated Woman with a Spider’s Web (c. 1803).