Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Dürer: Self-Expression and Depression

Albrecht Dürer is generally regarded as the greatest German Renaissance artist. He was born in 1471 and died in 1528, and was about 20 years younger than Leonardo da Vinci. At the age of 13, in 1484, he drew a self-portrait in silverpoint on paper. Quite remarkable compared with the things that got taped to my mother’s refrigerator.

Around 1500 Dürer became greatly interested in the relationship between mathematics and art. Leonardo and his contemporary, Pacioli the mathematician, almost certainly influenced Dürer in these studies. In 1513 and 1514 Dürer produced three famous copperplate engravings. In this post I’m going to talk about one of them: Melencolia I. The other two are Knight, Death, and Devil, and St Jerome in His Study.

Melencolia I is the most complex of the three, and entire books have been written about it. The figure of Melencolia, a winged genius, has a reflective pose. Some say Melencolia looks sad. Others say the figure is grinning. What do you think? After you read the rest of this article, take another look!

All the things I’ve read say Melencolia is a woman, but it looks to me like "she" has a mustache and maybe a beard. Do you see that too? She is wearing a dress, but a lot of the clothing worn back then by men kind of looked like that.

Melencolia holds a compass, and around her are geometric shapes and woodworking tools. What tools can you identify? Taken together, these supposedly symbolize mathematical knowledge and architecture.

See if you can find some keys, a purse, a bell, an hourglass, a rainbow, a comet, and scales. The scales represent the need for balance in one’s life. The hourglass indicates that our lives are finite: time is running out. Each of the other items probably has some significance, but my research didn’t uncover everything. Many articles suggest a connection to Alchemy, but I’m not going to take the time to discuss what that means.

Can you see a faint human skull superimposed on the truncated rhombohedron? It is supposedly visible in the original, but it takes a real stretch of the imagination to see it here, and this is the best copy of the engraving I could find. Over the years there have been numerous articles about the precise shape of this polyhedron. Some people may have too much spare time. Why does Melencoloa have wings? What does the wreath on her head represent? What does the dog sleeping at her feet symbolize? Is that a book under her right arm? What book do you suppose it is?

What is the gizmo to the upper left of the sphere? Some articles suggest it is a lamp. What about the things in the cup or crucible to the left of the rhombohedron. What town is visible through the rungs of the ladder? The seven rungs represent the seven metals of Alchemy.

None of the tools – except the compass – is being used. This is thought to reflect the observation that melancholy (to use the modern spelling) stimulates creativity but also detracts from it. I will take the time to discuss that.

In Dürer’s day people still believed in the four temperaments: melancholic, phlegmatic, choleric, and sanguine. These were linked with the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Hippocrates (460-370 BC) kicked off the idea that certain human moods, emotions and behaviors were caused by body fluids (called "humors"): blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. What body fluid is black bile? Yuck. Galen (131-200 AD) developed the first typology of temperament in his dissertation "De temperamentis", and searched for physiological reasons for different behaviors in humans. In "The Canon of Medicine", Avicenna (980-1037) extended the theory of temperaments to encompass "emotional aspects, mental capacity, moral attitudes, self-awareness, movements and dreams." I wonder how much modern "science" will look kind of silly to people in the future? In a future post I’ll make some comments on Evolution to illustrate this.

It wasn’t until after Dürer’s time that Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) disregarded the connection between body fluids and human behavior. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), Alfred Adler (1879-1937), Erich Adickes (1866-1925), Eduard Spränger (1914), Ernst Kretschmer (1920), and Erich Fromm (1947) all theorized on the four temperaments (with different names) and greatly shaped our modern theories of temperament.

Hans Eysenck (1916-1997) was one of the first psychologists to analyze personality differences using a psycho-statistical method (factor analysis). His research led him to believe that temperament is biologically based – the old Nature versus Nurture argument, another subject I won’t take time to discuss here. Maybe in some future post. The factors he proposed in his book "Dimensions of Personality" were Neuroticism (N) which was the tendency to experience negative emotions, and Extraversion (E) which was the tendency to enjoy positive events, especially social ones. By pairing the two dimensions, Eysenck noted how the results were similar to the four ancient temperaments.

   High N, High E = Choleric

   High N, Low E = Melancholic

   Low N, High E = Sanguine

   Low N, Low E = Phlegmatic

I’m definitely High N and Low E. I guess that’s why writing this post has been so therapeutic! The name of this blog comes from the famous rhetorical question posed by Hamlet. In his address to the 2002 Annual Meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Elio Frattaroli, MD, said many people can identify with Hamlet’s depression, "as an emotional crisis in his quest for truth, love, and moral integrity. An expression of his noble struggle with ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’—ie, his dysfunctional family and society—and also with an impossible combination of inner stresses: profound grief, righteous outrage, malicious vengefulness, unrequited love, disturbing sexual passion, existential anxiety."

Today, melancholia and sadness (or depression) are practically synonymous. In Dürer’s day the word had a much broader meaning. Melancholies were "thoughtful ponderers". They were characteristically very kind and considerate. They were acutely aware of the tragedy and cruelty in the world. They were very particular about what they wanted and how they wanted it, and tended to be perfectionists. They were dissatisfied with their own artistic or creative efforts and were their own greatest critics. Me, me, me, me, and me...

Thus, melancholy was (and still is) both a negative and a positive emotion, and there are several interpretations of the meaning of positive and negative.

One interpretation comes from the observation that creative people seem to suffer from depression more than average. Vincent Van Gogh, Winston Churchill, and Leo Tolstoy are prime examples of very creative depressives. For example, see The Van Gogh Blues, by Eric Maisel, PhD. If you Google creativity depression you’ll get over half a million hits, and if you read a little you’ll see that this is a controversial subject. Some people see a definite link between depressive disorders (negative) and great creativity (positive). Others claim that there is no link (or not enough information available at this time) to support the belief.

A related idea is that depression in some creative people is a symptom of a lack of meaning in their lives. They are "creative" to compensate for their ennui. George Everet writes, "Everyone struggles with personal demons. By that I mean the host of past experiences, failures, pains, regrets, and so on that one builds up over their lifetime. But I think creative people have more difficulty with these things because creatives understand the meaninglessness of rules. One of the attributes of creativity is knowing that rules, the ones we make as part of socialization, are arbitrary and often stifling. They're a direct deterrent to creativity of any kind and it's the job of creative people to work beyond those rules, or in the buzz phrase "think outside the box." Creative people, whether they're artists, inventors, or designers understand there is no box to think outside of. The box exists only for those who've been taught to believe there is a box, that there are "rules" to be followed and obeyed. They believe that things have to be a certain way and they're unwilling to question that."

A second interpretation of positive and negative is the struggle between good and evil that we all face in mortality. Can you see the cherub sitting on an upturned millstone? What do you suppose the cherub is writing? The cherub represents the righteous power of the mind (positive) This is the only Dürer engraving with its title inscribed on the engraving itself. Notice the creature like a bat holding the inscription. The bat represents the wicked power of the mind (negative).

Let me take both interpretations – and all of the other philosophical and psychological musings and clap-trap above and illuminate them in the light of the Restored Gospel.

"If the time comes when you have done all that you can to repent of your sins, whoever you are, wherever you are, and have made amends and restitution to the best of your ability; if it be something that will affect your standing in the Church and you have gone to the proper authorities, then you will want that confirming answer as to whether or not the Lord has accepted of you. In your soul-searching, if you seek for and you find that peace of conscience, by that token you may know that the Lord has accepted of your repentance. Satan would have you think otherwise and sometimes persuade you that now having made one mistake, you might go on and on with no turning back. That is one of the great falsehoods. The miracle of forgiveness is available to all of those who turn from their evil doings and return no more, because the Lord has said in a revelation to us in our days: ‘. . . go your ways and sin no more; but unto that soul who sinneth [meaning again] shall the former sins return, saith the Lord your God.’ (D&C 82:7.) Have that in mind, all of you who may be troubled with a burden of sin" (Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye in Holy Places, pp. 184–85).

Finally, we come to the magic square visible in the upper right of Melencolia I. It is hard to see, so I’ll reproduce it here. The rows and diagonals and columns all add up to 34. The 1514 date of the engraving is in the bottom row of the magic square - and is also found above Dürer’s characteristic monograph visible at the lower right of the engraving.

Take a closer look. The sums in any of the four quadrants, as well as the sum of the middle four numbers, are all 34. There are 86 different combinations of four numbers in the square that add up to 34. In addition, any pair of numbers symmetrically placed about the center of the square sums to 17. One of a kind.

I’ve been fascinated by magic squares since I was a little boy. I have several books on the subject. Maybe I’ll devote a future post to magic squares.

Now, what expression is Melencolia wearing?


At 1/9/10, 9:06 PM, Blogger JSLindgren said...

The eyes are clear and looking up, the forehead is not troubled. Melencolia is not smiling, but neither is she sad. I liked your suggestion of pondering, and with her clear expression, perhaps a hopeful thought has crossed her mind.


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