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If anybody ever asks you what melancholy is, just show him  Dürer's engraving Melencolia I. Produced in 1514, almost 500 years ago, this masterpiece is as captivating as ever. Different interpretations of work and its title exist, but one of less frequently encountered points to alchemical and mystical imagery in Dürer's work. While there is no direct evidence that the artist himself was ever acquainted with a practicing alchemist or took part in alchemical operations, alchemy was an essential ingredient to the cultural background of his times. Many artists felt strong attraction towards alchemists and their activities and frequently depicted alchemists at work in their laboratories. Alchemists considered themselves to be artists as well, the practitioners of 'divine' or 'royal' art. Even though the engraving does not show an alchemist, many alchemical elements start to emerge if we take into account this cultural context of Dürer's times. Dürer's choice of the magic square of 4th order (4x4), over more common 3rd and 9th orders, reflects the importance of number 4 in alchemy: 4 elements, 4 humors of the body, 4 temperaments, 4 colors of alchemy. The rainbow seen at the top left hand side was alchemists' favorite symbol for colors believed to appear in a definite sequence during the preparation of the Philosopher's Stone. The seven-step ladder is another common feature of alchemical symbolism, each step representing one metal and a heavenly body associated with it. The magic square, the compasses, the polyhedron, and the sphere that lie scattered around are symbolical of Pythagorean and Platonic concepts that were an important constituent of alchemical doctrine. The alchemist as a figure was often seen as a tired and frustrated person and melancholy was  held to be an attribute of seekers of knowledge. Melancholy is also inseparable form the Saturn mysticism. Saturn is frequently represented as an old man with an hour glass, a bringer of old age (remember Gustav Holst and The Planets suite?) and the elements of Saturn mysticism are scattered all over: the hourglass, balance and compass. There are many more alchemical elements in Melencolia I but these are some that can be easily seen and understood without going into much detail on alchemy.  What Dürer really had in mind during the time in 1514 while he was working on Melencolia I will remain a mystery. But one of the characteristics of a masterpiece, apart of incredible craftsmanship, is its resistance to any interpretation a majority would accept. Its constant ability to emotionally engage us and force us to ask questions every time we even glance at it is certainly a source of its power and its masterpiece status.

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Albrecht Durer






16th Century Art
Melencolia I