What is Melencolia?
Melencolia is a variant spelling of “melancholy,” which means sadness. It was seen as one of the four humors, or temperaments, determining one’s personality or mental state. The four include choleric (quick to anger), phlegmatic (calm), sanguine (cheerful), and melancholy. Melancholy was believed to result from an excess of a bodily fluid known as “black bile.” Though understanding of the underlying mechanism has changed, today’s physicians have come to accept chemistry’s role in mental illness.
Dürer drew his understanding of melancholy from the writings of Marsilio Ficino, a prominent Italian philosopher. A melancholic himself, Ficino saw both pluses and minuses to the condition’s tendency to stimulate thought and emotion. Melancholy could drive one mad, yet it also produced the sensitivity required for creativity. Ficino wrote, “All truly outstanding men, whether distinguished in philosophy, in statecraft, in poetry or in the arts, are melancholics.”
In his print, Dürer specified Melencolia I, or the first form of melancholy. He must have had access to treatises by German author Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa, who explored the realm of esoteric knowledge (including astrology, the occult, and magic), divided melancholy into three levels. Level One, the lowest, governed the imagination and pertained to artists. Level Two controlled the reason of scientists and physicians. Level Three governed the spirit or intuitive thought of theologians (and certainly Agrippa himself). Ficino further related melancholy to Saturn—both the planet and the god. Even today, we might call a gloomy person “saturnine.”
Was Dürer Melancholic?
At times, yes.
Even as a young artist he drew a remarkably expressive self-portrait in which his mood is evident. Though the dating is uncertain, another drawing is often placed around 1520–21. In the spring of 1521, during his trip to the Netherlands, Dürer became very ill, and the illness lingered:
In the third week after Easter I was seized by a hot fever, great weakness, nausea, and headache. And before, when I was in Zeeland, a strange sickness came over me, such as I have never heard of from any man, and I still have this sickness.
Presumably he made this drawing to show a doctor the nature of his ailment. The inscription reads, “There, where the yellow spot is located, and where I point my finger, there it hurts.” He points to his spleen. He may have contracted malaria, which can cause that organ to swell and brings on the other symptoms he described. The spleen used to be considered the source of “black bile.” The association was so close that an archaic definition of the English word “splenetic” is “melancholy.
Mitchell B. Merback, Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I (MIT Press, 2018)