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Dürer, Albrecht - VM - H.R. Rookmaaker

Albrecht Dürer: Melancholia
Dürer’s Melancholia
by H.R. Rookmaaker
Albrecht Dürer had a deep respect for his intended public. His unsurpassed series on the Revelation of John, for example, created in 1498 – the work by which he established his name not only in that time but for all ages – was produced as a woodcut. That was because it is an inexpensive process that allows for easy duplication. In this way Dürer’s art became more accessible to the ‘ordinary people’. He had no interest in an art by the élite and for the élite; instead, he wanted his work to be of service. He understood well that by serving one’s neighbour, one is also serving God. At the same time he found himself in educated circles where the spirit of humanism reigned which placed special emphasis on a study of history, science and art. His engravings were produced with these people in mind as they were made by way of a much more expensive and complicated method. For that circle of people he created his prints, often with deep philosophical themes. For us, as we are not familiar with the scholarship and culture of those days, these works are often very difficult to interpret.
One of these prints is his famous Melancholia, an engraving – or copperplate – dating from the year 1514. It is amazing how much has been written and researched in order to come to an accurate interpretation of this work of art. It is certain that astrology – a fashionable science in those days – plays a role in its intended meaning. Along with countless others, including people associated with Luther, Dürer was not free from the misconceptions of his time. But our intention is not to describe and assess all those  different attempts at an explanation, since it would take us too far afield and would require endless research.
For it is our belief that even without these the print makes a clear statement. With incredible mastery Dürer created a mood that communicates even when we cannot accurately interpret every detail in the picture. I believe that this engraving serves as an illustration of Ecclesiastes 1:17,18. Around the central figure we see all kinds of symbols of scholarship: a complicated geometrical shape, a globe, measuring rods, a scale, a grinding stone (the last two items apparently are a reference to alchemy, the natural science of that day), a compass, and much more which the observant viewer will notice. In the middle of all that there is this figure, gazing ahead in a pensive way, having gained wisdom – specifically the wisdom of knowing that concerning the work of God, ‘no one can comprehend what goes on under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 8:17), for ‘whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound – who can discover it?’ (Ecclesiastes 7:24).
The melancholic nature of this work seems to express something of these profound thoughts. Yet there is no despair here, just a deep wisdom and humility; no rebellion, but an understanding of our own smallness in comparison with God’s creation. Moreover, is it not the rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant, that we see in the background? No, the view of the future contains no hopelessness, despite a clear understanding of one’s own powerlessness with respect to the many deep, unfathomable questions with which God has burdened people to occupy themselves (Ecclesiastes 3:10,13).
It may be that no other artwork has ever struck such a profound note; even without an explanation of all the many details the piece speaks for itself. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity – that is the message of this work of art, spoken along with the [biblical] Preacher.
Originally published in Dutch in Stijl 2, 1,1953.
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003. Also obtainable as a CD-Rom. and
H.R. Rookmaaker was professor of art history at the V.U. University in Amsterdam. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation July 4, 2010