Illus. 52   Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, engraving on copper, 1514

Chapter 6: Black Choler (Excerpt)

 

           If black bile ceased to control behaviour, the name ‘melancholia’ survived; as did melancholia itself, the condition we call depression. In 1516 – long before the new medicine, and a hundred years before Burton wrote – melancholia as a mental state had been the subject of a major masterpiece. And in art, as in life, ‘melancholia’ was to flourish for further whole centuries, with a recurring reference to the colour black.

           In Dürer’s copperplate engraving Melencolia I (the spelling is Dürer’s), a large, handsome woman sits slumped in despondency, idly holding a geometer’s compass, while unused tools – a plane, a saw, a hammer and nails – lie round her [illus. 52]. And the skin of her face is dark or black. It may be that it is not always seen as black because one could say her face is deeply shadowed. But the shadow on her face is deeper than the shadow on her dress, and the contrast between her cheeks and temples, and the white of her eyes, make it clear that she is dark-skinned. Her features are European, not Indian or African: she is black from the rising fumes of Black Choler, as melancholics were said to be, and the blackness shows most in her face, the window to her mind or soul. That soul is not well: she is marked by despondency and perhaps ill will. She could be said to scowl, to be sullen.

           I make a point of her mood, because in criticism she is sometimes romanticized. Erwin Panofsky describes her thus: ‘her gaze, thoughtful and sad, fixed on a point in the distance, she keeps watch, withdrawn from the world, under a darkening sky, while a bat begins its circling flight’. The elegiac tone makes her sound like a Pre- Raphaelite maiden, though her look is surely more discontented, even baleful? Robert Burton, who (of course) knew Dürer’s print, described her as ‘a sad woman leaning on her arm with fixed looks . . . surly, dull, sad, austere’. Nor is it clear that she is, as Panofsky says, ‘thinking hard’. Her excess of black bile could be a symptom, not a cause, of her darkened state of being, for this engraving has always been felt to touch the mystery of real depression. One could say it shows the ill will of the deeply unhappy.7

           It does not help, in other words, to sweeten Dürer’s asperity with hints of tragic nobility, for the print has various elements of contradiction, negativity and the grotesque. Meteors were portents of sudden dire disaster, and the meteor in this print blazes at our eye, itself like an eye of rage. The bright rainbow above could be a blessed sign. It is clearly an arc from a perfect circle, perhaps marked by the compass that Melancholia holds; it suggests colour in this black-and-white plate, and God’s covenant with the new world after the Flood. And the sea beneath it has risen in flood, as seas were known to do when meteors fell. But what a contrast between the head-on fury of the meteor itself and the inert, leaden weight of this dead-flat water. Its waveless, rippleless, stagnant surface could remind us of the dead seas – sterile and hopeless – in the late paintings of L. S. Lowry. From over this sea, perhaps out of the meteor, there flies towards us, not a bat, as Panofsky says, but a snake-rodent, a flying deformity, with ‘Melencolia I’ blazoned on its bat-wings: its snake-tail writhes, its blind rat-head snarls as it shrieks. It is the horror-face of melancholia – and stands then in a strange relation to the grand Melancholia who fills our sight. For she is an angel (or a ‘genius’), with her fair hair and flowing robes and those lustrous white wings which Dürer has chosen to give her, and which no earlier picture of Melancholia had. With their aid, one would think, she could soar to a height, though maybe they are mainly present to show that she cannot or will not fly. The wings oblige us to compare her with the bat-winged abortion in a kind of visual syllogism. For it is Melancholia and she is Melancholia: they are aspects of one thing.

           Dürer’s double vision shades towards the surreal. Some angel this, sunk in lethargy and resting her cheek not on the palm of her hand but, as Panofsky notes, on a plump-clenched fist. The beautiful, sharp-edged Dürer light – the white, cold, north-European light – is in her clothes, her wings, her hair and in the victor’s wreath of cress and laurel which she wears, but her face is black; the blackness seeming more a metaphor than a medical explanation for her sterile stasis. One cannot but wonder if Dürer knew from the inside – in himself, in a parent – the state he draws from the outside here: the failure of will, impulse, art, which can befall us for reasons that stay obscure. There is an odd visual irony in the plate, in the beautiful drawing, for instance of the carpenter’s tools in the foreground: the plane, the straight-edge, the jagged and vicious-looking saw whose spike is the nearest thing to our eye. And in the more-than-life-size metal pincers that advance from under her skirt, as though she had, beneath voluminous taffeta, not only the pretty slipper we glimpse (through which we can count her toes) but also iron crab-claws, nipping.

 

           Whose are these tools? Including the modern-looking claw- hammer, which again is distinctly bigger than life-size, if we follow the perspective. Does this strong-limbed angel, when not seized with melancholy, tie up her loose sleeves and bend to at a bench? Or does a giant carpenter live nearby, strong enough to lift the odd stone polyhedron (known as Dürer’s solid) or the grindstone on which a sleepy cherub sits, as if it were the angel’s baby – making a picture one could lightly read as a caricature of Venus on a loveless day, beside her winged child Cupid? Christ was born to the carpenter’s trade, and died on a piece of carpentry. Does the ladder in the background lead to Heaven, or greatness – though how should the angel need it, since she has wings? For whom should the bell toll, that hangs un-rung on the wall, near the hourglass halfway through its hour? Behind Dürer’s solid a flame flares in the crucible of an alchemist. In the foreground, clear white, is that image of perfection, a sphere; it could represent the world, or the great bright globe of God’s Creation, with the stars in their spheres concentred inside it. The sleeping greyhound is drawn with the beautiful minute attention to living things with which Dürer always draws; Panofsky calls it a half-starved, shivering wretch, though one could also call the dog lean and fit for the chase. But it sleeps, the cherub dozes, the world in this picture is asleep or frozen, except for the rat-snake-bat, and the angel, who looks ahead, expecting nothing, from that place (within life) where journeys halt, where values are cancelled or lost, and where art, craft and science fail, not from difficulty but from the enigma that may at any time swallow everything – depression, the paralysis and death of impulse. Dürer said the purse at her feet was riches, the key at her waist was power: that is their meaning, and they have no meaning; they are no use to her now.

© 2019 by John Harvey, jrh49@cam.ac.uk 

Novelist, art critic, literary critic and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge

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