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Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia, an engraving

Dürer's Melancholia


Height: 241.000 mm
Width: 192.000 mm

Gift of the National Art Collections Fund

PD 1912-12-20-2 (B.74)

Prints and Drawings

    Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia, an engraving

    Signed and dated AD 1514

    Melancholy surrounded by the instruments of her temperament

    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.

    Earlier engravers had cheerfully copied the work of other artists, but Dürer sought 'to pour out new things that had never before been in the mind of any other man'. His originality has made this print hard to interpret.

    G. Bartrum (ed.), Albrecht Dürer and his legacy: (London and N.J., The British Museum Press and Princeton University Press, 2002)

    E. Panofsky, The life and art of Albrecht D (Princeton University Press, 1945, 1971)

    G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints, 149, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)


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