Dürer's Master Engravings
There are no prints more highly regarded by art historians and appreciators alike than Albrecht Dürer’s master engravings. Having seen a quality print of Adam and Eve in person and taken a magnifying glass to every square inch, I can say that, objectively speaking, there is not a single line out of place anywhere on the print.
The engravings are a cycle of three images that encompass the stages of religious belief and doubt. Although similar in content and approach, Adam and Eve is generally not included in the list of the master engravings—probably because it was made nine years before Knight, Death, and Devil. In spite of that, I think it’s worth looking at as a preface to the cycle. It introduces many of the recurring symbols and sparks the religious debate.
Adam and Eve depicts the moment, before the Fall and the Expulsion, when the Devil encourages them to eat from the tree of knowledge. The scene is filled with animals living in harmony with each other as if the dynamic of predator and prey simply doesn’t exist. A cat sleeps next to a mouse, a hare lays behind the cat, a buck walks behind the Tree, a bull naps in the background, a parrot rests in a branch above Adam’s head, a mountain goat perches on the cliff in the far distance. The crowned serpent wraps around the tree and passes an apple to Eve.
In the following images, Dürer explores the dynamic of faith and knowledge within a context of the emerging humanism in the early 1500’s.
As symbolic images go, Knight, Death, and the Devil is pretty simple—things mean pretty much exactly what you would expect. The Knight himself represents steadfast devotion and unquestioning faith. The dog (“Fido”) represents fidelity. The hourglass in Death’s hand represents the limited time of life. The horse, normally afraid, represents the overcoming of fear through training. In contrast, Death’s horse hangs its head, disinterested in all events. The skull represents death. The lizard is the Serpent transformed. Death is right there, reminding the Knight of his omnipresence. The Devil reaches up to scratch at or touch the Knight, ready to knock him off his path.
Melencolia I might be the most frequently debated and confusing image ever. Without written notes from Dürer himself, it’s taken a long time to figure the image out completely, but we can be pretty sure of what everything means.
Just by glancing at the image, you can get a sense that this is about complete and devastating depression. The figure looks depressed, and “melancholy” is in the title. Without understanding the details, you can understand the mood, tone, and feeling of the image—everyone knows melancholy and what that entails.
The overarching structure of the print is the overlap of the spiritual world and the real world within a single image. As we run through the symbols, you’ll start to see which ones belong to which. Additionally, you’ll notice that the linear perspective is slightly off and uncomfortable in a few places, which is strange for Dürer given his absolute and total mastery of perspective (we’ll come back to that when we talk about the ladder).
The hourglass, this time hanging on the wall, still represents the larger passage of time (a lifetime). The dog, still loyal, sleeps at the figure’s feet, curled up in a ball as dogs do when they’re relaxed in their environment. The town, a castle high above the horizon in Knight, Death, and Devil, is now a coastal town below the horizon line, grounded in the real world. The bell, once around Death’s horse’s neck, hangs on the wall next to the hourglass with its pull-rope running out of the frame.
There are a few other objects that don’t have a huge amount of symbolic significance but cue you in to the action of the piece: creation. Running down the left edge and counterclockwise, you see a forge burning just behind the oddly shaped stone block, a hammer on the ground, a square in the corner, a planer, tongs peeking out from below the fabric just above the planer, a saw, a straight-edge, some nails, and the tip of a bellows just under the signature and date.
Next to the sphere is a censer, typically used in religious rituals. The title is written on the wings of a not exactly anatomically correct bat, a symbol of spiritual darkness. There is a balance hanging around the corner from the hourglass, symbolic of measurement in both a physical and a spiritual sense. The main figure has a ring of keys, symbolizing access to knowledge and power. The cherub sits on a grinding wheel and appears to be writing notes on a tablet. In the main figure’s hands, you see a compass, both for the measurement and creation of physical objects and symbolic of divine creation. Next to that, the hand rests on a book—the then-modern symbol of knowledge (instead of an apple).
The figure wears a wreath of some kind, and typically this would be symbolic of victory; however, they’ve been able to identify some of the leaves as belonging to plants associated with the treatment of melancholy.
On the wall, there is a 4 x 4 square with numbers in it, with any row or column or diagonal adding up to 34. This particular square has planetary associations with Saturn, melancholy, and the age of Christ at his death. This was supposed to be a metaphor for the discovery of the divine order within mathematics.
In the background, there is a rainbow, another symbol of the divine within the real world. The point at the end of the streaking rays is a comet—historians were able to figure that out when they found a painting of a comet on the back of another of Dürer’s other pieces. This also carries associations of heavenly bodies interacting with the mundane and real world.
The ladder, with its associations with Jacob’s Ladder, runs from the ground up above the top edge of the print. The perspective of the ladder is a little bit off—it seems to run into and through the building it’s supposedly leaning on, and I think that means that it’s meant to be read in a symbolic sense rather than as a mere tool.
The cherub (a being traditionally of the 2nd highest order) itself is a symbol of a close connection with God. Here though, it’s brought down to a workshop on earth.
The winged figure (maybe an angel, maybe not) is typically seen as a female, but I think it’s fairly androgynous—in various depictions, angels wore basically the same thing whether male or female (robes). Regardless of gender, it’s a spiritual being now working in the physical world. The pose, with chin rested on hand, is one that Dürer used repeatedly through his career, and it’s an indicator of physical rest and spiritual unrest. The figure sits just at the moment when it’s stuck, frustrated, and unsure of how to progress.
This leaves the last 2 symbols and the ones that have caused a lot of trouble over the years. The sphere and the polyhedron. The sphere is pretty easy: a symbol of the divine perfection of God’s creation. It has no corners, one side, endless, perfect. The polyhedron is different, though. It’s not perfect. It has chips on the corners and doesn’t seem to be an ideal shape.
In this era, blocks of stone were quarried as rhomboids, meaning that their sides were parallel, but the angles weren’t 90 degrees like a cube or rectangular solid. If you were to imagine a rhomboid stood up on one point of one of its corners, the creature and it’s cherubic assistant have lopped off the top and bottom points to create this odd polyhedron.
Essentially, the creative plan here was to lop off planes from this rhomboid, getting smaller and smaller and more and more precise in order to create a replica of the sphere. When the figure and cherub realized that this was an impossible task, they stopped, and that leaves us with the moment of the image.
The metaphor—that attempting to create a circle from a square by drawing out tangent lines was impossible—came from Dürer’s association with Renaissance humanism. He was friends with Willibald Pirckheimer, who introduced him to these types of ideas. This one in particular comes from Nicholas of Cusa, who wrote and illustrated the idea in a previous publication.
The sphere and block is a three dimensional translation: God’s perfection can only be approximated by man. And that’s the central creative dilemma—try to create the perfect art work, and no matter what, it’s not possible. This print emphasizes the frustration, angst, and spiritual doubt at the center of that thought.
In contrast, St. Jerome in His Study shows a man who has come to terms with the facts of his own imperfection, has reconciled his faith, and works comfortably in his study. You still see the presence of death—the hourglass, the skull, and so on. There is a lion this time, an attribute of St. Jerome, and another dog sleeping peacefully.
The biggest difference is the light. There’s a halo as well as light spilling in from the window as if it’s God’s light illuminating the room. There is a gourd hanging in the foreground, representing spiritual growth and development.
The feeling of peace with St. Jerome is one that can only come after a period of religious doubt—he’s aware that faith is a choice, that perfection is impossible, that spiritual perfection can’t come from imitation or approximation or anything humans can do on earth.
Taken together, these images sum up the varieties and stages of religious experience in a way that’s still completely real and completely truthful. I think that Melencolia I is under scrutiny so much because it creates a kind of tension that we still find relevant. We’re in a humanistic world again, caught between faith in technology and faith in the old gods. With images like Knight, Death, and Devil and St. Jerome in His Study, there’s less to talk about because everything has a resolution. I don’t think we find as much relevance there at this point in our society’s cultural development. We like chaos, we like debate, and we thrive on tension.