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Decoding art: Dürer's Melencolia I

This famous image is packed with meaning. Find out what each of these objects symbolizes, and how they relate to the overall theme of melancholy. Special thanks to the Minneapolis Institute of ArtAlbrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, 1514, engraving (Minneapolis Institute of Art). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Narrator] Melencolia I is dominated by the figure of a brooding angel which some art historians interpret as the personification of melancholy. Others have suggested that she might be the embodiment of geometry. The angel is androgynous in appearance, but we most often refer to her with the pronoun she, since the personification of melancholy is traditionally female. The angel's wings bring to mind Durer's famous watercolor of a bird's wing which he created in 1512. She wears a wreath of buttercup and watercress. These were considered antidotes to the dryness that was associated with melancholy in Durer's time. The angel holds the compass, which is used to draw arcs and circles as well as measure and compare proportions. It may symbolize creation or rationality. Keys hang from her belt. These are symbols of power and order. And a purse or money bag lies near her feet. At the lower right, we see a tool called a clyster that was used to relieve constipation, another one of the physical symptoms associated with melancholy. The sleeping dog on the left is a greyhound. Dogs are well-known symbols of fidelity and they are also associated with melancholy. Next to the angel is a smaller figure called a putto. A putto is a common figure in art, usually shown as a naked male child. Although this one is clothed. Sometimes a putto is shown with wings as this one is here. In the lower right-hand corner we see Albrecht Durer's monogram, along with the date 1514. Durer usually signed his work with a monogram using his first initial to make a stylized door or gate. The last name Durer comes from the German word tur, which means door. Durer didn't leave us any written explanations about his intended meaning in Melencolia I. But Erwin Panofsky, one of the most important art historians of the 20th century, suggested that this work might be Durer's psychological self-portrait. If this is so, the larger angel would embody the fully developed artist, while the putto would symbolize a lesser artist, scribbling away, eyes closed, unaware of its surroundings. According to Panofsky, the angel's sadness comes from the fact that she, as opposed to the putto, can see ideal forms in her imagination but knows that she will be unable to fully realize them in the physical world. Many tools of physical creation are present in the image. At the angel's feet, we see a collection of woodworking tools strewn across the floor. Nails, which may also be a subtle reference to the crucifixion, a straightedge, a saw, a plane, and what may be a molder's form, a device to ensure the uniformity of the contours of molding. In the center of the image is a millstone. To the left of this, we see a hammer, as well as a crucible. Alchemists used crucibles to heat base metals such as lead in their attempts to turn them into gold. Models of ideal geometric forms also appear. A sphere and an octahedron, a complex eight-sided shape sometimes called Durer's solid. This shape shows off Durer's masterful ability to render perspective. On the wall in the upper right, we find a magic square. A magic square is a grid in which the numbers in each row, diagonal, and quadrant, as well as other patterned combinations add up to the same number, in this case, 34. The year 1514, when this image was made, also appears in the bottom row of the magic square. Above the magic square is a bell, which was often used to mark the end of life. The bell rope looks as if it is being controlled by an unseen hand. The hourglass is a symbol of limited time, often connected to the idea of the memento mori, a reminder of death. Next to this is a balance, a symbol of judgment, often shown weighing souls. And to the left of this, a ladder. Through the ladder's rungs, we glimpse a receding shoreline along a vast body of water. The rainbow in the sky above is a symbol of hope or heaven. Inside the rainbow's arc, we see a comet or shooting star. Unusual celestial events were seen as having dark or threatening meanings in Durer's time. Durer may have also witnessed the landing of a large meteorite on November 7th, 1492, when a 250 pound rock came to Earth about 30 miles from Basel, where he was at the time. Next to this, a bat, a creature of darkness holds a banner with the title of the image. The name Melencolia I corresponds to one of the forms of melancholy identified by a German thinker marked Cornelius Agrippa, who divided melancholy into three levels. Level one in this hierarchy was supposed to govern the imagination and pertained to artists. With its plethora of symbols, Melencolia I is sometimes called Durer's summa, because it brings together so many of his interests and ideas. (jazzy piano music)