Samantha Gardner - Albrecht Durerís Master Engravings

Melancholia 1, 1514

Albrecht Durer was a master at engraving and woodcutting. His works on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are amazing. Iím not normally interested in black and white works but they interested me because of the great craftsmanship and how detailed and intricate they are. Another reason that they drew me in was the fact that Durer is so well known in the art world that I had to stroll through the gallery. I have learned about Durer in my art history classes but seeing them in person makes one appreciate them more. Reproductions do not do the artistís work justice. Looking at how fine some of the engravings are fascinated me because I donít really understand how he did it. Growing up in this day and age is completely and totally different then living in the time period that Durer grew up.

The engraving titled Melancholia I fascinated me the most. It is one of three that are said to be his master engravings. As stated on the plaque that was next to it, it is supposed to be the most complex and enigmatic of the three. The subject matter of all three of the engravings (the other two are titled Knight, Devil, and Death and St. Jerome in His Study) are intended to be discussed and puzzled over. There are so many different interpretations of the drawings but I wanted to research the meaning of Melancholia I.

There are elements within this engraving that made me wonder why they where there. The magic square, the polyhedron, and the ladder seem to be completely out of place. I guess there is no real way to know for sure why they are there but the different interpretations that I found online are certainly plausible. Alchemy formed an essential ingredient to the cultural background in Durerís time so it is said that this influenced the engraving at some point. (Read) Durer seems to personify Melancholy in the angel and the Roman numeral I suggest that this engraving was supposed to be one of a number of paintings. Melancholy is one of the four temperaments: melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, and sanguine. These four temperaments are associated with many things, including the four bodily humors; black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood. The humors where, in some strange way that I donít understand, associated with the four colors that showed the stages of alchemy which where black, white, citrine, and red. Another association with the number four is that the magic square in the upper right hand corner of the engraving is four by four. I added all the numbers in each of the rows, down and across, together and they equal 34. In the bottom row the two middle squares represent the year in which it was made, 1514. There is a rainbow in the background but I donít see how one is really supposed to know it is a rainbow because rainbows have distinct colors and since the engraving is neutral in color I didnít really make the association with it.





All the elements in the picture seem to come back to alchemy, science, and/or creativity. Melancholic people were said to be the most creative people in society so many of the elements, including the crucible and scales, the polyhedron and the sphere, and the plane, ruler and saw go back to the central theme. The angel is creative as well as intellectual. The square, the compasses, the polyhedron and sphere, the hourglass, the balance can also be related to Pythagoras and other philosophers from ancient times. The ladder that is behind the building has seven rungs and according to Read it was another form of alchemical symbolism representing the seven metals, the operations and the associated heavenly bodies. A large amount of the stuff in the interpretation of the drawing by John Read is way over my head talking about the planets and Saturnine mysticism so understanding all of the picture will have to wait until a later date when I can research the engraving and the associated alchemy symbolism. The polyhedron is mathematical in some ways and artistic in others, according to all the literature I have read about it, but no one person can give a real solid reason as to why it is there; I have read everything I can find and still donít even know where to begin to understand why it is there. Durer and God must be the only people who know why.

Reading about this print, I wonder whether or not the artist actually meant for things to be interpreted this way or not: we learn about so many different forms of artwork and teachers and professors all say that this is what was meant to be portrayed. In our day and age we associate certain things it with it, but did the artist actually mean to portray it that way or were they just going along with the times or did they not even think about it when they painted or constructed the piece? Did they mean for it to be interpreted a certain way to future generations? There are so many questions that I would like to answer but I donít even know if I can. There is a lot of material on the different pieces of artwork but I would love to see if I could find what actually proves that certain things were meant to portray what I have learned that they portray.



Read, John. Durer's Melancholia And Alchemy.
Exhibition placards