Art Therapy & Northern Renaissance: A Mental Journey from Outer Space to the Inner Self

Melencolia I (Plate 1) is an engraving produced by Albrecht Durer in 1514, in paper, with dimensions 23.9 cm in height and 18.5 cm in width, currently at the collection of the British Museum. In the foreground, we see a winged androgynous figure, wearing a wreath, holding a compass, seated among carpentry tools. Behind her, there is a putto seated on a millstone and a dog seated at her feet amidst a sphere and a polyhedron. In the background, there is an alchemical crucible and the scenery of a dock. The sea is calm and in the sky there is a rainbow. Inside of its circle, there are a shining celestial body- a star or a comet- and a bat, holding a banner, on which it is written: “Melencolia I.” Behind the back of the winged figure, there is a tower wall, upon which there are a leaning ladder, a balance, an hourglass, a bell and right under it, a hanging magic square.

In this blog post, I will argue that the engraving is purposefully made to be a multi-referential and polysemic image, intended not to have one and only decoding. The figure is meant to simultaneously signify for many personifications and identifications, including that of Durer’s himself. The aim, I claim, was to be used as a reflective and psychotherapeutic image, which could offer to its creator and to its potential viewer/ beholder, the possibility to gain- through a visual and mental journey- greater insight into their internal world, by being reminded of the vastness of the infinite external one. In the beginning, I explore the pictorial, literary and scientific tradition and reality that could have been a source of influence and inspiration for the creation of Melencolia I. Consequently, I analyze the long tradition of the psychotherapeutic use of the images, of the arts, of the mathematics and of astrology, as well as of natural elements, to argue that Melencolia I could as well be an image of such a kind. I then underline the contradictive, chaotic and ambiguous nature of the engraving and I point out that the main androgynous winged figure could be interpreted as many personifications simultaneously. In the conclusion, I re-visit the title: Melencolia I, to draw the inference that the psychotherapeutic effect of the engraving stems from its abstruse nature and its reflective character, that permits its viewer to project their internal chaos onto it and find themselves.

Firstly, I will search for the literary sources of Melencolia I. Melencolia could be a reference to the theory of “the four humors.” According to that theory, the four humors were connected to the four bodily fluids, the four elements, the four phases of life and the four spatial directions: choler was connected to the fire, to dry heat, to summer, to midday, to planet Mars and to maturity; phlegm was connected to wet and cold winter, to the night, to the Moon and to old age; blood was warm and wet, connected to air, to spring, to morning, to planets Jupiter or Venus and youth; and melancholy was connected to black gall, to dry and cold autumn, to the evening, to the earth, to planet Saturn and to the age around sixty (Panofsky 1955, 156-7, 166). Also, Agrippa of Nettesheim in his “De Occulta Philosophia” introduced the three types of melancholia: the “melancholia imaginative,” “the melancholia rationalis” and the “melancholia mentalis” (Su 2007, 166). The number “I” in the title, thus, could be due to Durer’s influence from “De Occulta Philosophia” of Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim and it could imply the first of the three types of melancholic genius: that with a strong imagination, suitable for painters or architects (Panofsky, 1955 168- 70). The concept of Melancholia could probably be a merged one, between the Hippocratic theory of humors and of new humanistic theories of the Renaissance, such as the one that Marcilio Ficino presented in his “Three Books of Life”, which drew connections between melancholy and higher intelligence, driven by the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies (Plato’s book De Scientia and Aristotle’s book of Problems) by which the concept of a divine madness was established and the link between melancholia, genius and the astrological influence of Saturn was created. Durer placed himself among that category, regarding himself as “a man of melancholy temperament, one under the sway of Saturn” (Su 2007, 154).

As we also know, Durer made unexpected and detailed visual metaphors as text illustrations, from when he worked as a book illustrator. Hence, another possible text, that could have inspired Durer, was Plato’s Dialogue “Greater Hippias,” between the philosopher and Socrates about the notion of beauty. Durer owned a Latin translation of it from his father’s well-informed library and a Greek one from his friend Pirckheimer. Many things are common in Plato’s dialogue and in Durer’s engraving: the millstone as inspired by Plato’s essay “aesthetic excuirsus,” the keys and the purse, as symbols of power and wealth and the connection between power and beauty, the connection between usefulness and beauty (geometry’s eyes are useful for vision, dog is useful for hunting, the tools are useful instruments for measurement,) the connection between vision and sight and beauty, with Geometry’s eyes symbolizing the first and the bell the later; the whole engraving could draw connections with the last section of the Dialogue, when both philosophers embrace their ignorance and their inability to come into a conclusion about the definition of beauty (Doorly 2004, 255-8, 263-9, 270).

Furthermore, the other literary source that could have inspired Durer into creating the engraving, is Vitruvius Book III “De Architectura” in which the notion of perfect proportions is stressed out and the beauty is presented as the outcome of right measurements and perspective. Lastly, Luca Pacioli’s “De Divina Proportione,” which Durer bought in 1509 in Venice, is another possible source for Durer’s engraving: in which drawing as a genre is claimed to be a mathematical field, like music; whose second chapter is full of mathematical concepts- many of which Durer possibly includes in Melencolia I- and in which chapter is mentioned that Plato excluded from his academy anyone who was an ignorant of geometry; in that book polyhedron is claimed to be the perfectly proportioned object (Doorly 2004, 260-9).

From 12th C and on, the depiction of “Liberal and Mechanical Arts” and “Art in General” impersonated, had become popular and more specifically, a woodcut named “Typhus Geometriae,” that appeared in a very popular treatise of 1504-8, maybe inspired Durer to draw Melencolia as the visualization of geometry (Panofsky, 161). Aesthetically it is also close to the depiction of the lyrical image, as described by the poem “I sat down on a stone,” written by the medieval German poet Walther von der Vogelweide (1170-1230). Actually, iconologically, it merges five pictorial traditions: the saint’s grief for the death of Christ, the melancholic intellectual, the demonized, the personification of geometry and the mentally ill melancholic (Su, 156).

However, the engraving could also stem from the terrain of science; it could be Durer’s reaction to the Copernican hypothesis as that is presented in Copernicus’s monograph, the Commentariolus, which he wrote in 1512- 14 to briefly present his theory, that the earth moves around a central and motionless sun. After the Copernican theory, the geocentric approach was destroyed: the man had not been the center of creation, of God’s attention and love. The feeling of a distorted sense of place, stemming from this cruel revelation, could be spotted in Durer’s engraving by the absence of any vanishing point, by the twisted perspective of the truncated cube and by the perverted symmetry of the ladder. In Timaeus of Plato, each of the five perfect solids was related to one of the four elements and the dodecahedron to the celestial concave alone. Earth, that up until then was believed to be placed in the celestial center, was associated with the most stable of all solids, the cube. Thus, the truncated cube in the engraving, could signify for the “marginalization” of the earth, which lost its pivotal universal status. The sun in the background (not a comet, in that point of view) shines in all directions, but it is the moon that illuminates the scene (since the moon is the only geocentric celestial sphere according to Copernican theory). The monograph of Copernicus begins with seven axioms, drawing references from Euclid’s Elements- a very influential and well known to scientists of the time text- and ends up with the description of the planetary movements: “Thus, Mercury runs on seven circles in all; Venus on five; the earth on three; and round it the moon on four; finally Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in five each. Altogether, therefore, thirty-four circles suffice to explain the entire structure of the Universe and the entire ballet of the planets.” The ladder’s seven stairs could signify for the seven axioms of the Copernican theory, the magic square- in which all rows (diagonally, vertically and horizontally) sum up to number 34, could hence, symbolize the 34 circles of planetary movements. The misspelling of melancholia in the title, Melencolia I, could serve as an anagram of “Nicolai Elem.” meaning “Nicolaus Elements,” hence the Empedoclean elements: fire, earth, air and water, or the Euclid’s Elements. In that case, they are all symbolized by objects of the engraving: the fire by the alchemistic crucible in the background, the earth by the cube, the air by the wings of the bat and the water by the tranquil sea beyond (Manning 1983, 24- 9, 31).

Having explored the pictorial, literary and scientific tradition that may have influenced Durer, I shall now proceed to examine if there are links between the art-psychotherapeutic tradition and the creation of Melencolia I, so that I can support my argument. Actually, the four liberal arts painting, poetry, rhetoric and medicine were based on the same principle: they could give to the agent the opportunity to alter their state of being. The pre-Cartesian approach of therapy included therapies via visual representation that addressed the body, the mind and the soul all at once. Giulio Mancini (1559-1630) who was the personal physician of Roman Cardinals used music and figural arts along with walks into natural and architectural environments, as means of therapy for depression. Robert Barton (1577-1640) in his “Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)” recommended visits to the Galleries of Roman cardinals as a way to treat melancholy, because the virtual space of art and architecture, the imaginative process of symbolically interpreting art, was considered to regenerate the spirit and the body, to open new horizons to the mind and to offer the opportunity to the soul to heal via reflective meditation. That tradition had its roots way back in antiquity, when Dio Chrysostom (ca. 40-after 12) claimed that the works of sculptor Phidias were psychotherapeutic. From ancient times images and art was considered to heal the psych and to preserve the good hygiene of the spirit and the body, they were considered to even have magical and supernatural protective powers that ensured strength and survival. In book 3 of Ficino’s De Triplici Vita, a therapeutic program through images (among other artistic and intellectual means) that are put together harmoniously is described as a tool for achieving excellent health. Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins panel in the Prado, the Spiegel der Vernunft (Mirror of Understanding) woodcut, Giorgio Ghisi’s Allegory of Life engraving and Durer’s Melencolia I, were also considered to be such images, speculative images for “self-observation, self-recognition and self-reform,” a mental exercise that heals psychopathology through the means of imagination. According to that line of thought, in the androgynous winged figure of Melencolia I, the melancholic finds the reflection of their own psychological state and thus, they can identify with that figure. The astrological and mathematical visual references strengthen the reading of the engraving as a therapeutic image, considering medieval “medical astrology” and “iatromathematics,” that were used to help the viewer to see the whole picture, rather than being obsessed in their own restricting microcosm, and to free their thinking with a taste of the infinitive possibilities shown by the magic of mathematics. The magic square is the “Jupiter’s square,” as a possible reference to Jupiter who governed the blood and the “sanguine,” desirable humor and was considered to cure the melancholy. Probably Durer was inspired by the philosophy of Agrippa von Nettesheim, who considered mathematics to be magical. At the year that Durer created the engraving he had lost two close to him friends, Anton Kress and Anton Koberger, as well as his own mother, Barbara Durer. Maybe the engraving was also a self-therapeutic image to overcome the grief. In the highest row of the magic square we can read the date of his mother death (16/3/2/13, 16 the day of the month, 3+2=5 May, 1+3=4 last digit of the year) and in the bottom row we can detect the year of her death (1514) (Merback 2017, Intro & Chapters 3-4). Besides, Durer is known for the self-reflective elements of his art, as well as the numerous self- portraits he adored to create.

However, Melencolia I is much more than a self-reflective or self-referential artwork. Melencolia I, departing from its visual tradition, imposes on the viewer, for the first time, the visual experience of fragmentation, complexity and chaos. It is aesthetically imperfect, incomplete, disharmonic and leaves room for experimentation and exploration. It resembles the religious hallucinations that the melancholiacs of the time had mentioned to have experienced, and it serves as a medical, visual and cognitive tool, used to rebalance the turbulent melancholic mind (Merback 2017, Introduction). The engraving is full of visual contradictions, such as: the direction of the ladder and its architectural support, the time of the day and the source of light, the identification of the celestial body in the background and of the rainbow either as solar or as lunar; the contradictions resemble the contradicting nature of the melancholy. In “Melancolia I,” the delineation of perspective, results into the disruption of visual uniformity; the objects are chaotically arranged, the composition is characterized by friction and disharmony; the engraving is unframed and looks chaotic, making, thus, the viewer uncomfortable (Balus 1994, 9-10, 14). All the things in the engraving may show a neurotic thirst for knowledge. The gaze of Melancholia is uncanny; she is looking at an unknown space, somewhere behind the spectator, with a dark expression drawn at her contemplative face. Durer in his notes mentioned for Melencolia that “she looks with the eyes of the Saturn,” thus, she has claimed to be the personification of Cronos, who as a mythological entity, signifies for the relationship between the sky (Uranus, heaven) and the earth (Gaea) (Manning 1983, 27). She is a Faustian unearthly personification, thirsty for forbitten and mystical knowledge of the cosmic mysteries. It is the aestheticized notion of melancholy placed in an allegorical scenery full of symbolisms. It is the Freudian and the Heideggerian notion of “the uncanny,” the “unhomely” that the figure’s gaze in the Durerian Melancholy conveys, which puts the focal point somewhere outside of the painting, somewhere where the presence of death is implied and this -implied by its absence- visual confrontation, transforms the figure into the Foucauldian death’s “vanquished presence” (Su 2007, 148-9, 150, 161).

In conclusion, I claim that the abundance of symbols, chaotically arranged in the engraving, stem their signifying strength by the absence of words, except from only one word, “Melencolia,” followed by a letter (I) that signs as a number and could be a reference to the personal pronoun of I, meaning “me, myself;” a faceless mental space (created by a symbol) that offers somehow the possibility for the viewer (and the creator) to identify with. That only word is spelled unusually, further exaggerating the uncanny feeling. The allegorical “confusio” of objects and symbols, creates an ecstatic feeling, of the Heideggerian kind of ek-stasis, of “standing outside itself” (Su 2007, 168). Hence, of being open to infinite possibilities and interpretations, like being open to life, as a possibility and as an infinity. The mental place created by the “I” (eye) symbol, creates the possibility to simultaneously travel, via thought and sight, as far as possible from one’s own existence – via the exploration of all the different interpretations- while at the same time, returning to one’s own self, as if returning home (“Heimlich”) (Su 2007, 169), where home is the whole universe. For “one (I) is all, and all is one (I).


Balus, Wojciech. “Dürer’s “Melencolia I”: Melancholy and the Undecidable.” Artibus et  Historiae 15, no. 30 (1994): 9-21. DOI: 10.2307/1483470

Doorly, Patrick. “Dürer’s “Melencolia I”: Plato’s Abandoned Search for the Beautiful.” The Art  Bulletin 86, no. 2 (2004): 255-276. DOI: 10.2307/3177417

Manning, Robert J.. “Durer’s “Melencolia I”: A Copernican Interpretation.” Soundings: An  Interdisciplinary Journal 66, no 1 (1983): 24-33. DOI: 10.2307/41178241

Merback, Mitchell B.. Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia I. New  York: Zone Books, 2017.

Panofsky, Erwin. The life and Art of Albrecht Durer. New Jersey: Princeton University Press,  1955.

Su, Tsu-Chung. “An Uncanny Melancholia: The Frame, the Gaze, and the Representation of  Melancholia in Albrecht Dürer’s Engraving Melencolia I.” Concentric: Literary and  Cultural Studies 33, no 1 (2007): 145-175. URL:


Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I, The British Museum, Paper, 23.9cm x 18.5cm.