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File:Dürer Melancholia I.jpg


Date 1514
Medium copper plate

Melancholia I The bat-like creature flying through a night sky declares the subject of this famous engraving: Melancolia I. That dark temperament is personified by a female figure seated in the foreground. The winged infant beside her is a 'genius' (in the ancient sense, meaning an accompanying spirit).

Melancholy has wings and from her belt hang keys and a money bag, symbolizing power and wealth. She is surrounded by measuring instruments. Above her head is a panel of 'magic' numbers (they add up to 34 in all directions). At her feet are the tools that can fashion the material world. Yet she does nothing: lost in thought, she turns away from the light.

Renaissance philosophers had suggested a new interpretation for melancholy, as the temperament of genius (in the modern sense). Melancholy was possessed by artists, in whom 'Imagination' predominates; 'Reason' dominates scholars; while the final stage of 'Spirit' was the preserve of theologians. If this interpretation is correct, Dürer has presented us with a portrait of his own temperament as an artist.


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