Sunday, April 15, 2012

Melencolia I and Early Modern Europe

My favorite artist of all time, Albrecht Dürer, engraved the image above in 1514.  Art critics have debated the exact meaning of the winged Melancholia and the other objects in the scene.  It’s likely, though, that Dürer wanted to convey the melancholy that results when human ingenuity and creativity, when our efforts to explore the mysteries of the universe, are stifled by our intellectual insufficiency and the constraints of time.  Dürer is working with certain motifs of his era.  The theory of the temperaments, based upon a pseudo-medical theory stemming back to Galen, is at work here, as is the purported astrological influence of Saturn.  This engraving, I think, visually represents both the potential and limitations of early modern Europe (1500-1800).  The disconsolate figure of Melancholia sits wide-eyed amidst objects of science lying about in disarray around her.  The sea looms in the distance, as if teasing her with unexplored riches beyond the horizon.  Likewise, people of the early modern era were striving to make sense of a new world thrust upon them in a relatively short time span.  Perhaps a number of us have sat in saturnine contemplation along a desolate seashore.  We no doubt share some of the same frustrations, concerns and hopes as did Dürer, his Melancholia, and people of early modern Europe in general.