One of the most recognizable woodcuts
master engraver Albrect Dürer
, dated 1514
A nice large scan of this piece can be found at:
The title of the piece, particularly the "I" suggests that Dürer may have originally intended to do a series of four pieces, one for each of the Four Tempraments (melancolic, phlegmatic, choleric and sanguine). This is further supported by the existence of a fourth order magic square (i.e. contains the numbers 1 through 4).
Melencolia I contains many allusions to alchemy, as alchemists were often seen as perpetually melancholy, frustrated people. Their constant, perpetually fruitless quest for the Philosopher's Stone tended to leave them to an endless series of defeats.
Some likely refrences to alchemy:
- The giant oddly-shaped polyhedron: A truncated rhomboid symbolizing the Philosopher's Stone, or perhaps the Stone of Saturn, which would tie in with the theme of time in this woodcut (Melancholia was one of Saturn's daughters).
- The seven-runged ladder: the seven metals of alchemy, the seven operations of alchemy or the seven heavenly bodies of alchemy. Alchemy takes numerology into account (e.g. the magic square adds up to 34, 3+4=7).
- The rainbow: Another classic seven in nature. The rainbow was a symbol associated with Saturn as well. Additionally, because the colors of the spectrum blend into one another in the rainbow, it was held as a symbol of transformation.
- The saw, plane, and nails: Symbols of alchemical fire (see the suit of swords in Tarot). Note that there are four nails. This ties in to the numerical significance of the number four (Tempraments, Humors and Bodily Fluids), but also makes a Biblical reference to the four nail crucifixion theory.
- The crucible: Probably the best known alchemists' tool.
- The theme of balance: The true alchemist practices both internal alchemy and external alchemy, and understands that one cannot practice one without the other. The Philosopher's Stone was a Holy Grail of sorts, just as much a state of being as an object. One alchemical theory held that the Philosopher's Stone granted perfect harmony and balance, which lead some to theorize that on attaining the Stone, one would also become a hermaphrodite. The theme of balance is shown in the hourglass, which is exactly half spent, the magic square, the sphere (all points equadistant from a point), and, of course, the scales itself. Some theorize that the truncated rhomboid also represents balance, when the cube is taken as a masculine symbol, and its truncation seen as a partial feminization, leading to a final balance.
Some scholars suggest that the magic square may contain a reference to Dürer's mother's death on 5/17/1514.