Engraving. Nuremberg, 1514. (BRF0224)
Dürer’s most problematic masterpiece, Melencolia I, must be considered an experimental print, for there are no others like it in his oeuvre or in the art of his time. Depicting a seated female with wings who is lost in thought, this allegorical engraving has been interpreted in many different ways. Its elusive meaning is most likely related to the medieval concept of the four bodily humours (the sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic), of which the last was thought to control the moods and creativity of artists. Dürer’s figure holds an artist’s compass and a book, but does nothing with them. She is surrounded by an array of puzzling objects that appear to symbolize geometry, mathematics, measurement, and construction, but the unnatural and wakeful night seems to pass without inspiration. Many modern critics understandably see an autobiographical statement in Dürer’s brilliant but enigmatic print.