Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Why

I've spilled a lot of pixels on Melencolia I by this point. So now the big question is... why. Why is this piece so important to me, why do I obsess on it, why does it hit me in such a profound way on a personal level?

And I guess the best answer I can give is, because this is what it feels like inside my own head.

A clutter of ideas – weird, occult ideas at that – sitting before an ambivalent thinker. Reminders of death, yes, but also endless, obsessive puzzles to dive into, weird landscapes, tools laid carelessly aside, a flurry of information spiraling down to the furthest detail.

Sounds a bit like this blog, doesn't it?

And moreover, sounds a bit like my life. I tend to dive deeply into things that interest me for a short period, filled with inspiration from Elsewhere and then, once I am done with the idea, it lays me carelessly aside. David Foster Wallace put it best in Infinite Jest when his protagonist Hal Incandenza (a last name itself redolent of being afire with inspiration) speaks of his own genius-troubled childhood: "I too had moved serially between obsessions, as a child." Hal's speaking of his own father's incessant, unstoppable need to conquer a new obsession once the old one had worn off. "His record up until [the filmmaking career which he took up until the end of his life] indicated that he remained obsessed with something until he became successful at it, then transferred his obsession to something else."

Of course, some of us gripped by melancholia imaginativa never become a success.

And that's I think what someone like me gets out of Melencolia I. Albrecht Dürer? A true Renaissance man, skilled in art, architecture, mathematics, the occult and spiritual. His furious melancholy picked him up, used him, and put him down again but with great works left behind. My melancholy? It renders me heavy and weighed down, obsessing on minutiae, an angelic figure of inspiration sinisterly placed upon my shoulder, taunting me with what might be.

I guess the challenge of having this kind of brain (I'm not saying I'm anything like a genius, by the way; just that I have the kind of brain susceptible to a) obsessiveness and b) depression) is being able to systematically organize and process one's obsessions, put them into the field of vision of one's own life, and catalogue them accordingly. Which is one of the reasons I started this blog, to be honest.

Being mired in depression has always been something I've reveled in a bit, which I think is part of the condition, but what Melencolia I offers me is the promise of a way to make something beautiful out of a condition that is painful, shockingly painful on almost every day of my life.

I want to be picked up by inspiration, ultimately, picked up and not put down carelessly when it is done with me.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Math

We keep seeing the motifs of Dürer as craftsman return again and again in our examination of Melencolia I. Indeed, the image itself is replete with these symbols: the compass in the celestial figure's hand, the woodworking tools at its feet, and the scales, hourglass, and bell above. But look more closely at the image and you see another symbolic thread, parallel and complementary to craftsmanship, and that is the presence of mathematics.

Of course, without math one cannot correctly construct. But the math in Melencolia I is obscure, occult, surreal, magical. It defies the earthy concerns of a saw, nails and a plane. It begs us to leave the real world behind and enter, yes, an imaginary, higher realm.

We've spoken of the magic square in detail before; all that remains to be said is that Dürer's magic square in Melencolia I has many eyebrow-raising references and properties. Everyone knows the inclusion of "15/14" in the bottom row of the square to reflect the year it was created. But there is also another monogram of Albrecht Dürer here, hidden in the corners of the square: A and D are the 1st and 4th letters of the alphabet. In addition, it is a gnomon magic square, where the four quadrants of the square add to the same sum, as well as the center four numbers. Lots of satisfying mathematical symmetry here (not the least of which that opposite values on the edge of the square total to 17). But what of the mystical significance of this particular type of square?


The 4x4 square was dedicated, in Agrippa, to Jupiter. Now, one would naturally wonder or expect a magic square in a piece titled after melancholy to include the Saturnine, 3x3 square. But instead of the leaden, ponderous square of Saturn, we are giving the shining, beneficent, literally-jovial square of Jupiter. Is the magic square in Melencolia I meant to something to aspire to? It hangs above the angelic figure's head, conspicuous in its placement among the muddle and mess of the rest of the scene, the bell waiting to be rung above it. Perhaps it is even a square of warding, a way of keeping the confusion and overwhelming stimuli of melancholia imaginativa at bay? An exercise to settle the mind, a meditation on order? Think of the time Dürer likely spent in lining up all these numbers to work just as he wished. Perhaps he saw the square as a way to quiet and focus his mind.

In Agrippa, the square of Saturn can be used as both "white" or "black" magic, to either confer stability or discord upon the subject of its spell, but Jupiter's square in unequivocally beneficent magic:
They say that if [a four-by-four magic square] be impressed upon a Silver plate with Jupiter being powerfull, and ruling, it conduceth to gain, and riches, favor, and love, peace, and concord, and to appease enemies, to confirm honors, dignities, and counsels, and dissolve enchantments if it be engraven on a corall. (French, 1651)
Moving on to the other mathematical enigma in the image, we come to Dürer's solid, on the left hand side of Melencolia I. And it's quite an uncanny piece of business. Let's start with the fact that it contains the primary optical illusions in Melencolia I. First, there is the face, or according to Finkelstein, faces plural. These "ghosts" that appear in the solid are put there via the method of foreshortening; an optical illusion to us today, but in the early decades of the birth of perspective in Western art, a new and bizarre way of communicating graphical information.

The solid itself is a rhombohedron, with truncated shavings taken off two of the vertices, turning the 6-sided figure into an 8-sided one. We, of course, cannot see the back four surfaces of the solid, which means we are making assumptions of symmetry. It's often said that this solid has "fascinated scholars for centuries," but what really is going on here I think is the inherent uncanniness of taking of a regular, nay Platonic, solid – the cube – turning its sides into rhombuses and then chopping off two of the vertices. It feels wrong. Especially when you compare its "irregular" shape to the conspicuous sphere on the ground. Why a sphere, right there of all places? Again, I believe the placement is intentional and meant to unnerve us. The sphere is the most perfect shape; the octahedron, odd and seemingly out-of-place.

But what if the solid is exactly what it should be? A man like Dürer would not arbitrarily consign an irregular solid to his image for no reason. What is it? Perhaps it is the very liminality, mutability, and process of transition of the solid from cube to rhombohedron to octahedron that makes it meaningful? The cube in Platonic metaphysics represents the element of earth; the octahedron, air. Perhaps Dürer's unsubtle shaving of the already-warped rhombohedron was a way of describing the feeling in Agrippa of being gripped as an earthly being by a spiritual, mystical melancholia imaginativa? The earthbound transforms into a realm of pure idea? There is something to be said about the fact that would have necessitated a transformation of cube into quintessential dodecahedron and not airy octahedron, but who's to say what exists on the other side of the solid, facing the distant landscape and eerie rainbow arcing its way across the sky?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Man

Qualifier up front: I am neither an art history student nor a student of psychology. So the suppositions I will make in this installment are just that: suppositions. But as someone with at least a casual knowledge of Dürer's artistic journey over his lifespan, his interests outside of art, and the way in which he navigated the political shoals and rocks of the early 16th century Holy Roman Empire, I feel like I can give at least a truncated psycho-history of Dürer.

Let's begin with the most notable observation from his early life: Dürer was born at least somewhat an outsider. His father, a skilled craftsman (in goldsmithing), came from modern-day Hungary and as we noted in the previous installment, Dürer's family name was originally Ajtósi, changed first to Türer (the German translation of "doormaker") and then phonetically to Dürer. Whether or not Dürer's background as a "first-generation immigrant" (if such a term can be used anachronistically) had any impact on his later art, I can't say. What I can say is that almost all of Dürer's biographers agree he was privileged to grow up in the burgeoning "middle class" (again, another likely anachronism) among some of the much talented craftspeople in Europe near the turn of the 15th/16th centuries.

Dürer didn't differ from most artisans of the time: he apprenticed, he had his wanderjahren (which included a stint in Italy at the outbreak of the revolution in art there), and he settled in Nuremberg where he lived for most of the rest of his life. Stability, patronage, experience: these are the factors that enabled Dürer to produce his masterworks.

What do we see of Dürer in his art? Precision, yes, to be certain. A certain horror vacui that today we might associate with outsider artists? Perhaps that's just me. A devotion to the ideas of twin ideas of the liberal arts and mystical inspiration? Looking at his St. Jerome in the context of Melencolia I, and indeed the occult construction of the melancholia imaginativa previously investigated, how could anyone think otherwise? But there are some other aspects to Dürer's personality that I believe can be found in his choices of subjects.

Portraiture was unusual enough in this very early Renaissance era. Self-portraiture was even rarer. Occasionally a fresco artist might insert himself as one figure of many in a crowd scene, but Dürer's gaze gravitated towards himself first, and this made him unique in this period. Later in the 16th century and beyond, the self-portrait would become an accepted, normal mode of painting (notably, amongst women artists), but in Dürer's time, it was a statement of purpose, a statement of ego.

Because Dürer did not come to making real, permanent works featuring himself later in life; he'd done it since adolescence. Certainly, the drawings he made at 13 may have likely been for practice, but his great self-portraits in paint occurred throughout his 20s, when he was just beginning his career. An audacious statement.

More audacious? His Self-Portrait at Age 28, in which he dresses and poses like a Christ.1


As was his trademark, his AD monogram, which adorned most of his prints. Remember that prints were certainly for mass consumption in this age, and so began the era of the credited artist.2 Dürer had to be a marketer, a self-promoter. But still, I believe this strong sense of ego was one of the most basic elements to his personality, and it dovetailed well with the development of the printed image and word.3

This leads nicely into I think the other very salient aspect of Dürer's personality: his profound neophilia. By now means was Dürer mired in the past in either his art of his thought: he was the early prototype Renaissance man: plumbing the ancients for the ideas that mattered and re-presenting them in a "modern" context. Certainly his thoughts on architecture and art broke ground, but spiritually and religiously, we've already seen his attraction to the occult, and in the early years of Martin Luther, Dürer positively idolized the man. Keep in mind, this was before Protestantism as a movement and Luther was simply an unorthodox reformer; once Luther broke with the Church, Dürer would brook no further discussion. But he remained friendly to Reform ideas up until his death, which in the context of everything else, makes a lot of sense.

So where do we end up with these traits? We see a man with a strong ego, a desire for the new, and a crowded, full mind, forever voyaging. Was Dürer melancholic as we would consider it today (either unipolarly or bipolarly depressed)? The connection between genius/creativity and mental illness is well-trod ground I don't wish to debate here, but it is interesting to note that no one ever made explicit observations of Dürer being depressed, simply energetic and endlessly creative. Surely, he was said to have experienced "depressive fits" when his father died, but this is reasonably to be expected. Dürer definitely tried to control his self-image, so it makes sense that he would release only the manic side of his bipolarity, if indeed he suffered from it.

One wishes to argue that melancholy interested Dürer for the reasons we cited in Agrippa: he saw in its imaginative form an explanation for his skill with hands and mind. In the last installment of this series, I'm going to examine this idea of mental illness, depression, creativity, and ego more carefully in a personal context. For now, I wish to leave the question, "Was Dürer himself melancholic?" unanswered, like so many of the mysteries in his masterworks.

Next week we'll look at the art, mathematics, and science – including the occult science – of Melencolia I.

1 For years, I thought this was the work featured in both of George Lucas's THX-1138 films (student version and theatrical release), as the Electronic Confessional/Jesus/Citizen 0000, but it turns out it was Hans Memling's Christ Giving His Blessing. That confusion in and of itself says a lot about Dürer's self-portraiture.

2 Being a medievalist by education, the proliferation of named authors, artists, and musicians always was to me one of the signal occurrences to identify the change from medieval to Renaissance mindsets, whatever that might mean. I've come around on this as being somewhat reductive in recent years as I delve more into the Renaissance/early modern period.

3 In most of the books Dürer authored, his monogram appears on the frontispiece and takes up nearly half the page.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: The Title

So let's begin at the beginning then. Why is Melencolia I called that?

The title is right there in literal black and white, floating in a scroll in the upper left corner of the print, supported by a bat, one of two animals in the image (both the bat and the dog being associated with the melancholic humor). The bat was considered melancholy because of its nocturnal nature; the dog, due to its ability to mimic human emotional responses and the longstanding "black dog" of depression.1 It is noteworthy that the bat presents us the title, not the cherub/putto who slumps in imitation of the main angelic figure, its wings seeming vestigial, gravity keeping him earthbound. It is, instead, the bat who is rampant and aerial, triumphant in this scene.

Melencolia. It's not an orthography the moderns are familiar with, and indeed many scholars believe it was never an accepted spelling of "melancholia."2 (Finkelstein 2007, 20) Is there a hidden message, perhaps as an anagram of the title, or even within the gematria of the individual letters? I will leave that for others to discern and analyze: Finkelstein opts for the anagram LIMEN CAELO, "boundary of heaven," or "gateway to heaven," playing on Dürer's original surname, Ajtósi, meaning "doormaker." But the idea of liminality... let's not quite throw that away yet as a stretch.

Melencolia I. Was there to be a part II, a part III? Scholars are divided on this, as it seems that Melencolia, as one of the so-called "master prints" of Dürer, could be considered part of a series done while in service to (but not directly commissioned by) Emperor Maxmilian I. But this idea of the three master prints seems a modern contrivance, which also conveniently ignores the fact that Knight, Death, and the Devil came first of these three.

The I in the title, I believe, more accurately refers to "melancholia imaginativa." And this is where we first delve full-bore into the world of the occult and of magic and its relationship to Dürer.


Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim was a contemporary of Dürer's. Agrippa served as one of the first encyclopedists of Western esotericism in the early modern era with his masterwork, Three Books of Occult Philosophy. When most of us think of Western magic – its mix of ancient cultures (Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian, etc.), its reliance on ritual, geometry, cypher, and categorization, its pseudo-scientific trappings – all this comes from Agrippa.

In his first book, Agrippa speaks of the inspiration that can come when a truly enlightened sibyl, prophet, or magician is influenced by melancholy.3
So great also they say the power of melancholy is of, that by its force, Celestiall spirits also are sometimes drawn into mens bodies, by whose presence, and instinct, antiquity testifies men have been made drunk, and spake most wonderful things. And that they think happens under a threefold [three-fold] difference, according to a threefold apprehension of the soul, viz. imaginative, rationall, and mentall. They say therefore, when the mind is forced with a melancholy humor, nothing moderating the power of the body, and passing beyond the bonds of the members, is wholly carried into imagination, and doth suddenly become a seat for inferior spirits, by whom it oftentimes receives wonderfull wayes, and forms of manuall Arts. 
"Inferior spirits," "Celestiall" ones, enabling the experiencer to speak "most wonderful things." Dürer's engraving visually, as a whole, really has that feeling, doesn't it? The ambivalence of melancholy, the fruits of said imaginative state all around the larger angelic figure (all those instruments of science, measurement, and quantification), the interior motion and exterior inertia... it's all there, packed into all of Dürer's obsessive detail. Melancholia imaginativa is the inferior form; it produces sudden utterances, clutter, chaos, formless verse, skill in manual arts, it gets into the limbs. The higher forms – rational and mental – produce philosophical/prophetic and divine inspiration respectively.

Agrippa actually owes this tripartite conception of inspiration via melancholy to an earlier theorist, Marsilio Ficino, who was really the instrument by which Platonism and neo-Platonism from the late antique period came down to the humanists in the Renaissance. His Latin translations of Plato brought Christendom's thinkers out from underneath the medieval devotion to Aristotle.

Here's the most interesting thing about Dürer's purported inspiration by Agrippa: his Three Books had not even been published yet in 1514. If Dürer were so inspired by Agrippa's theories of melancholy, he had to have read them in a circulated manuscript, for which there is ample evidence: Agrippa and Dürer both served in Maxmilian's court. But it is stunning to think of untested, unpublished ideas being so vitally important to Dürer here, for a theory on melancholy, buried within a much larger opus, to grab him so profoundly to lead to this kind of masterwork. It's a testament, I think, to how much the theory spoke to Dürer personally. Which will lead us to the next installment of this series: looking at Dürer's vita and personality.

1 Although the idea of a "black dog" hounding the depressive is now mostly well-known due to Dr. Johnson and Winston Churchill's use of the phrase, the idea exists in a continuum from Ancient Rome, through the Middle Ages (where the black dog was more often a familiar of the Devil) and through the early modern period: Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy speaks of dogs being "most subject" to the mimicry of human melancholy, in the form of "many stories of dogs that have died for grief, and pined away for loss of their masters." Whither Jurassic Bark?

2 Not wishing to drive traffic too far afield, but as Wikipedia says, it's believed more ink has been spilled on Melencolia I than any other piece of art in human history; a bold claim, but even so it's very hard not to tread on scholars' toes when trying to explicate what makes this work unique. I cite here, for the purposes of examining the title of Melencolia I, a paper from a physics professor at Georgia Tech, David R. Finkelstein, and his quite occult interpretation of, well, nearly everything within Melencolia I.

3 Excerpt from the English version first published in 1651 by John French.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Dürer's Melencolia I: Prelude

"I don't get it."
"No one has gotten it for 500 years THAT IS WHY IT IS SO AWESOME."

- a friend and me, on Melencolia I

"It's grey and has a sad dog and a withered baby and an angry dude and symbolism and is [your] version of puppies and rainbows."1

- my wife, on Melencolia I

Last year, I did a series of posts around Christmas on the Weirdness of Christmas. It was pretty well-received, especially the post on the Yule Lads, which is apparently getting a lot of attention these days as we enter another holiday season.

Most importantly, last year's Weirdmas series kept me honest. It kept me writing. So I was thinking that I needed another series this year; maybe not 12 days of fun, as real life continues to intrude. But something I could write about over the holiday season in a serial format. And then it hit me.

My long-promised series of posts on Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I.


I don't want to spoil too much of what I'd like to write about this magnificent, mysterious print in this introductory post. But what I will tease is the fact that this work is absolutely seasonally-appropriate, especially for me personally.

Its deeper personal meaning for me, too, will need to wait until the proper time. All I will say at this moment is that Melencolia I is an important artistic vision to me on many levels, one I did not discover until relatively late in life, and one which I literally look at every day (it is both my iPad wallpaper and my Facebook homepage image).

During this series I'll also talk a lot about Melencolia I's occult symbolism, about Dürer's life and influences, about the reception of Melencolia I in the centuries since it appeared on the scene. But mostly I want someone out there to discover it and love it as much as I do.

1 This conveniently ignores that Melencolia I actually has a dog and a rainbow in it! Hmph.