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.

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