Melencolia I

Wikipedia says this 16th century engraving by Albrect Dürer "has been the subject of more modern interpretation than almost any other image in art." I've used it here for three reasons that reflect on the importance of judgment. The first reason relates to the angel, the second to 5 objects on the left side, and the third to its title. My understanding of the picture's hidden elements comes from my friend David Finkelstein without whom this work would remain poorly understood. David's analysis of the engraving is available online at his web site.

Melencolia I, by Albrecht Dürer, 1514
Click here to view a larger version of the image.

The Angel

I see the angel as a learner; she is divine and so is learning. Learning is the process of attaining godliness, and all learning is part of this process. The angel contemplates the geometric solid whose meaning is enigmatic. The solid refers to the mind, and it may refer to the soul as well. A detailed view of the fine lines that define the solid reveal what appear to be a multitude of human faces. The angel has her hand in a position for writing but the implement she's holding is a compass; compasses measure.

We interpret images according to objects that are familiar to us, and it is natural for us to ascribe separateness and identity to them. This was just the beginning of what Dürer had in mind. As well as conveying meanings by portraying meaningful objects and by juxtaposing objects meaningfully, he also superimposed hidden images within the objects. These form layers that tell complementary and conflicting stories. It's these relationships, many yet undiscovered, that fuel the controversy about the picture's meaning. Of the dozens of under layers in this work I'll consider only one, the Arab. One must consider the Arab to better understand what the angel is doing.

The picture shows two events that were important in the 16th century and are still important today, these are the emergence of logical thinking and the conflict between Eastern and Western cultures. Both conflicts require judgment and the angel, who connects the two, may be the key to understanding them. The emergence of logical thinking, later to dominate European culture in The Enlightenment of 18th century, is represented by the geometric solid discussed below. The conflict between East and West is represented by The Arab.

The Arab is a kneeling figure hidden in the folds of the angel's dress. The oddly serrated saw, or sword, he's reaching for with his left hand is being held down by the angel's right foot, while his right hand is reaching back toward where she is stabbing him with the point of her compass. She seems to have him hostage while she contemplates the situation. And it appears that her contemplation of rationalism (the geometric solid) as a replacement for religion (the millstone) bears on this conflict.

Was Dürer portraying the Arab's struggles as a philosphical reflection on changing culture? Was he referring to The Crusades, the three centuries of war that defined relations between Europe and the Middle East up until his time? Or was he directed by, in Dürer's words, "the fear of invasion by the Turks, which gripped all of central Europe," which also conveyed his personal and family struggles with the expansion of Islam into his native Hungary? He had reason to do all of these, and he probably was. These themes play a dominant part in what might be called the picture's historical story.


5 Objects

Five objects gain their importance from their referential meaning and relative placement. These objects are the globe, the dog, the solid, the millstone, and the comet. The picture uses these objects, supported by many of the smaller items, to present Dürer's philosophy. Each object deserves a dissertation of its own, but a summary will suffice. The first thing to note is their linear relationship: four of them lie on a straight line, with the millstone being displaced.

The globe is foundational in the terrestrial, spiritual, and alchemical senses. It provides the context from which humanity fashions a place in, and an understanding of the world. It is the starting point for contemplation and transformation. It is blank and smooth.

The dog represents fidelity or, from the Latin origin of this word, faith. It was a common view in Dürer's time, when European culture was dominated by Catholicism, that faith sustains our connection to the divine. The dog lies between the globe and the solid in the way that faith lies between the terrestrial and spiritual worlds.

Theology and the divine institution of the church, represented by the millstone, are objects to which faith applies itself to connect humanity to the spiritual realms. But the thinking that began in the Renaissance in general, and with Protestantism in particular, began the movement that would supplant theology with what we now call "natural philosophy". Dürer was on the rationalist edge of these changes, as evidenced by his work in art and mathematics, and in his time it was not safe to be seen diverging from the views of the Roman Catholic Church. This explains why Dürer wrote his story in symbols rather than words, and hidden symbols at that.

The geometric solid has complex and obscure meanings. I feel it represents individual and collective rationalism, although in the 16th century this force held more mystery and promise than it does today. In those times rationalism was distinct from theology and it hinted at the renaissance of ideas to come. Today rationality has subsumed the role of religion as politicians now confer with scientists not bishops, we teach our children reason rather than religion, and we look to technology to save us.

By placing the millstone on the dog's level and out of the line leading to the comet, and at the same time placing the solid on a higher level and along the divine progression, Dürer seems to say that theology and faith are much the same, while reason offers a higher truth and a more divine path. The geometric solid also carries references to gnosticism, or hidden paths to knowledge, as a top-down view of its edges presents the Shield of David inscribed within a hexagon. Both are mystical symbols, the shield from the Hebrews and the hexagon from the Chinese.

The comet represents an aspect of God. Clearly it is distant, dynamic, and uncapturable. It may represent a power, or a message, or a messenger. No one seems to be looking at it, and the scene is not illuminated by its light, but it is tracking straight for the head of the cherub-like figure sitting against the wall who, it is fairly certain because he holds an engraver's tool, is Dürer himself.


The Title

The goal of The Learning Project is to encourage young people to develop judgment. The essential story of your life is knowable only by you, and only you can guide yourself. Others might claim to know what's best for you, but what is obvious to them may not be true. And so it is with the title of this engraving.

The great historians considering this work misunderstood it at the most basic level: the level of its title. It was not until David Finkelstein, a person of no special training or authority in the subject, turned his attention to it that this key was revealed. The title "Melencolia" is not and never was an alternate spelling of the word "Melancholy," although the allusion to that word's medieval meaning of "introspective" is apposite. Nor does the "I" in the title refer to the Roman numeral one, though this was one of Dürer's three master works. Rather, "MELENCOLIA I" is an anagram of "CAELO LIMINE" whose meaning in Latin can be taken as "I engrave at the wall ", or "I engrave at the edge", or "at the gateway to Heaven," all of which apply to the scene. In this way we see that the engraving is clearly about Dürer's world and philosophy.

Albrecht Dürer questioned the accepted thought of his time and wrote a symbolic discourse whose statements he hid in plain sight. David Finkelstein, following his own intuition, deciphered some of these meanings enabling us to more clearly understand Dürer and his times. In a similar manner we must question what we're told about our world in order to find our own place in it.



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