Master Collection 3: Dürer's Melancholy
This world-famous print called Melencolia (Melancholy) is the work of German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). It is one of his master engravings - his best works.
It was copied by other artists living at the same time as Dürer. It is one of these early copies that is in the Folkestone Museum collection.
On the right sits a winged figure (Melancholy), the personification of sadness or melancholy. She is apparently sunken in despair: she holds her head in her hands, and stares past the busy scene in front of her.
The picture is crammed with symbols and tools associated with craft, carpentry, alchemy, geometry, numbers and the passing of time. There is creative work to be done, but she appears paralysed to act.
Can you spot the dog, lying curled up at her feet? It’s a greyhound, known for its speed. It appears to be very thin, as though she hasn’t even the energy to feed it.
The tools lying at the front are those of a carpenter.
- Centre left is a plane. It contains a sharp blade and is pushed by the handle to remove thin strips of wood.
- Centre right is a saw, with jagged teeth.
- There are also tongs peeping from below the hem of Melancholy’s skirt, a straight edge (or ruler), and some iron nails.
- Can you also find a hammer?
These carpentry tools and nails allude to the crucifixion of Christ.
On the wall, to the left of the bell, are an hourglass and a set of scales.
The hourglass and bell represent time.
The scales are a reminder of the Christian belief that good and bad things done during a person’s life will be judged at their death, to decide if they go to Heaven or Hell.
The winged cherub is sitting on a millstone beside a ladder. A millstone can make you sink (like sadness or melancholy), but a ladder can take you up high (raise your spirits and self-esteem). The rainbow behind symbolises hope.
Melancholy is holding dividers or compasses. Along with the sphere and polyhedron, these symbolise geometry.
Behind the polyhedron is a crucible, used by alchemists who tried to turn ordinary metal into gold.
At her waist Melancholy has keys, signifying power. The purse at her feet represents wealth.
This print is about the difficulties of creativity. Melancholy is a form of depression and was linked to creative genius. Some art experts have interpreted it as Dürer’s psychological self-portrait.
Dürer made engravings and woodcuts, and was the most important early printmaker.
To create an engraving, an artist draws lines into a copper plate with a sharp point. When inked and cleaned, the ink stays in the incised lines and can be printed onto paper. The printed picture is a mirror image of the one drawn on the plate. The word ‘Melencolia’ had to be drawn backwards!
Click here for more information about this print, to view other works by Albrecht Dürer and to see how engravings are made.