Sunken in despair
This personification of melancholy is strong and capable yet immobile, chin in hand, the figure appears sunken in despair. Building tools are scattered about—compass, saw, nails, plane—yet the figure leaves them there untouched.
The figure is androgynous; the female pronoun is used here in keeping with the gender of the word melancholia, but some art historians believe the figure to be male. Her strong, muscular, substantial body and delicate wings epitomize her dilemma. She aspires to flight, yet is too heavy for her tiny wings to lift. Perhaps this is an allegory of hubris—the dangerous conceit that a mere human may become like a god. Flight is only for gods—as the unfortunate Icarus learned when he flew too close to the sun and the wax in his self-fashioned wings melted. The limits of mass and volume, of being a person in the world, prevent Melencolia’s flight—physical or creative. In a more prosaic fashion, this situation is familiar to anyone facing a demanding project. The desk is clear, the computer is on, books are in arm’s reach…and nothing happens.
Compare the order of Jerome’s study to the scattered tools and scattered mind of Melencolia. Space itself is thrown into confusion. The polyhedron in the center of the composition turns the picture into a parody of a neatly organized Renaissance picture constructed according to the laws of one-point linear perspective. The polyhedron conceals the horizon, the starting point for linear perspective, a subject Dürer wrote about and used with aplomb. Rather than tidy orthogonals converging in vanishing point, the lines implied by the edges of the polyhedron zoom in all directions like scattering mercury.
One can imagine Melencolia tripping should she try to stand up because the space itself is in turmoil. Jerome’s contented lion and Melencolia’s neglected dog exemplify the contrast of productive calm and agitated disfunction. (Legend says that Jerome plucked a thorn from the lion’s paw and the he became Jerome’s trusty companion forever after.)
Melancholy and artists
While melancholy was seen purely as illness in the Middle Ages, the result of too much black bile, Renaissance thinkers began to see it as a badge of honor—the mark and burden of genius. This evolving notion of melancholy and its implications for the “artistic temperament” are evident in Dürer’s growth as an artist. His early self-portrait of 1494 (left) bears the inscription “My affairs must go as ordained on high” (“1493 (D.H.); MIN SACH DIE, GAT ALS ES OBEN SCHTAT”—top center).
This phrase, emphasizing fate and duty, perfectly expresses the late Gothic mentality of fulfilling divine and parental obligations rather than seeking fulfillment as an individual person. Individuality becomes particularly poignant for Dürer after his encounter with the Italian Renaissance in Italy.
Dürer’s diaries tell of his fascination not only with Italian art but with the status of the Italian artist. Italian artists were conceded expressive identities and rewarded with status and regard as intellectuals, while in Germany artists often remained respectable but anonymous artisans.
Such a diminutive social niche could not contain Dürer’s accomplishments or expectations.