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Melancholy. Signifies the putrefaction of the matter. Philosophers also call this operation calcination, incineration, pregnation. We gave this name to black matter, no doubt because the color black has something sad, and that the mood of the human body called melancholy, is regarded as black bile and annealed, which causes sad vapors and dismal.
Dom Pernety, in Dictionnaire mytho-hermétique
What has melancholy to do with alchemy? Not everything in alchemy has to do with chemicals, cryptic terms or laboratory equipment. The spiritual side of alchemy deals with knowledge, philosophy, spirituality, and emotions. As in the above quote, melancholy is associated with the first step of the Great Work, Nigredo or Blackness. Melancholy was thought of Saturnian quality; Saturn is the planet of Nigredo, and related to heavy moods, depression and melancholy. It is the first step, because it arises when the spiritually inclined person is fed up with the material world that has nothing more to offer him. But light is hidden in the darkness, so the melancholy has to be experienced to get to the next stage of Albedo, or Whiteness, when the inner light breaks through.
The most intriguing engraving is of course Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer, and I will go into it into detail. After that, there are a few other engravings that relate the state of melancholy to the alchemical process.
Do such that by all thy efforts
The one who cultivates great
The one who knows one-self
The one who knows to discern
(Albrecht Dürer, 1509)
Melencolia I, by Albrecht Dürer, 1514
Why is the title on the banner spelled Melencolia, and not Melancolia which is the right spelling? Dürer would never make such a mistake. Even when he would have an accidental mistake, he could have corrected it. If you look at the magic square, the number 9 and 5 have been corrected. Dürer had the skill to correct engraving plate errors. Therefore, the spelling of Melencolia was deliberate, and must have a meaning. After all, it is the only one of Dürer’s engravings to have a title on the plate. If it is an anagram, it could form LIMEN CAELO, the door of heaven, or gateway to heaven (source: Anthologia). If Dürer indeed intended for the title, or for the concept of Melancholy to contain the hidden message of a Gate to Heaven, then it is apt to be seen the banner in the sky and at halfway the height of the ladder. The ladder reaches up to the sky/heaven. Also Melancholy is typically associated with the first stage of Nigredo in the alchemical process to eventually lead to the perfection of the soul, or symbolically to the entrance of heaven.
At first sight, this famous engraving by Albrecht Dürer does not look like it has anything to do with alchemy. However, when the individual components are analyzed, they have a definite relation to the hermetic side of alchemy. Some of the objects in this engraving show up in other Melancholy engravings with alchemical equipment. If you look well, you will find a crucible on the left side of the engraving, next to the polygon. It is kind of small, and half hidden, but it is there.
The brazier, with crucible in the fire, and a pair of tongs. A reference to alchemical operations.
The winged woman is usually held as the personification of melancholy. But in alchemical terms, she is the anima of the alchemist, or his soul. Although she has wings, she forgot how to fly (to the heavens). She is wearing a wreath on her head, generally believed to be from a plant to be a cure for excessive melancholy.
The dog at her feet, looks skinny, unhappy, curled up and appears sleeping, all signs of neglect.
We see the hour glass and the weighing scale in other engravings or paintings of alchemists. They refer to the passage of time, and the need for balance when the soul works on herself on the path of spiritual development.
Above the hourglass is a sundial, which refers to the passing of time. Alchemists often talk about the time it takes to perform the Great Work. But there is an anomaly: the plate with the numbers for the hours is not a plate but a scroll; and there is no shadow on the dial. Dürer probably didn't want you to take it for a real sundial, but as a visual representation of the passage of time, just as with the hourglass. Time scrolling by. Time in Greek mythology is the god Chronos, who is Saturn in Roman mythology. So we have Saturn (ruling over melancholy) next to the magic square of Jupiter, who is Saturn's Son.
The a straightedge, hammer, hand plane, saw, a pair of tongs, and four nails (all the way to the right of the engraving) are the tools of a carpenter. They signify the need to constantly work on oneself. For the moment the tools lie discarded, as Melancholy is presently in a state of inactivity, or passivity.
The magic square and the bell above it is very interesting. The magic square is of Jupiter. Every row, column, and diagonal; the four squares in the center; the four squares in the corners; and each quadrant all sums to 34. An additional detail is the year the engraving was made, 1514, that appears in the bottom row. It is also seen above Dürer's monogram at bottom right.
The magic square and the bell are behind the angel; she doesn't see them, and therefore she is still in the state of melancholy.
Why would Dürer not use the magic square of Saturn, which is associated with Melancholy? The answer lies in the bell. Bells were used to drive away unwanted or malevolent spirits. The bell here is to be rung to drive away the unwanted energy of the Saturnian Melancholic energies.
Magic squares were used on medallions to attract the energies of the planet concerned. The magic square of Jupiter here is to attract the jovial (=joyful and uplifting energies) of Jupiter.
The magic square of Jupiter depicted by Dürer is not the traditional one, but is a modification of the Jupiter with some pairs transposed. He probably did this to be able to put the year of the engraving in the bottom row.
The ladder at the back of the building is reaching beyond the frame of the etching. The ladder is a symbol of the spiritual path, that leads upwards to the spiritual worlds. Here it also signifies to leave Melancholy behind.
The ladder has seven rungs in total. The Philosophers often talk about the number seven: they have seven planets, seven reigns, seven operations, seven circles, seven metals, and their Great Work resembles the creation of the world in seven days. The ladder is the path upwards through the seven spiritual spheres.
The sky contains a rainbow, which, in alchemical terms, with its many colors, is a stage just before Albedo, the second phase of the Great Work. Albedo, or Whiteness, is the phase when the light breaks through, and we see that here as the appearance of star-like rays. The rays drive away the bat , a creature of the night, bearing the title Melencolia I.
The angel is looking at the polygon which is quite large in the overall image. The polygon appears to be a truncated rhomboid (also called truncated triangular trapezohedron). It may have started out as a cube which was stretched and then truncated. There have been various mathematical interpretations of this shape that you can read about on this Wikipedia page. There is still doubt as to the actual geometry of the polyhedron and its meaning. Dürer developed innovative methods for constructing polyhedra using "nets‟ and it is possible that the net for this polyhedron is related to the magic square.
Ernst Theodor Mayer, was a retired psychiatrist from Munich, who pointed out that the two triangles of the polyhedron projected downwards result in a Star of David. The corners of the polyhedron projected laterally, in turn, to fit exactly into the 4x4 grid of the magic square:
The Star of David is composed of two interlacing triangles and was used by alchemists to visualize the union of opposites.
Dürer was exploring polygons, and maybe he wanted to create a polygon (although irregular) to connect to the magic square.
Or maybe the polygon was Dürer's way of depicting the Philosopher's Stone? After all, the Philosopher's Stone (=our soul) is imperfect and needs to be perfected. If we take the polygon as the imperfect Philosopher's Stone (the soul), then the position of the ladder makes sense, because the polygon lies at its base. The imperfect polygon (soul) is the starting point of the Great Work. From this imperfection, the alchemists starts its ascend towards perfection, by climbing the ladder.
The perfected form lies underneath:
A perfect sphere lies in front of the woman. The sphere has a radius equal to the apparent distance marked by the figure's compass. As it lies next to the carpenters tools, it might suggest that it has to be sculpted to perfection, that is, the soul needs to be worked, all edges removed, and made to perfection. The incense burner (?) the left might mean purification, which is a necessary operation in the alchemical work.
Plato, in his Timaeus, writes that God made the soul of man in the form of a perfect sphere; and Heaven in the form of a circle. Did Dürer refer to Plato by depicting both sphere and the compass?
As Plato in his Timaeus writes:
And he bestowed on it the shape which was befitting and akin. Now for that Living Creature which is designed to embrace within itself all living creatures the fitting shape will be that which comprises within itself all the shapes there are; wherefore He wrought it into a round, in the shape of a sphere, equidistant in all directions from the center to the extremities, which of all shapes is the most perfect and the most self-similar, since He deemed that the similar is infinitely fairer than the dissimilar. And on the outside round about, it was all made smooth with great exactness, and that for many reasons… For movement He assigned unto it that which is proper to its body, namely, that one of the seven motions which specially belongs to reason and intelligence; wherefore He spun it round uniformly in the same spot and within itself and made it move revolving in a circle; and all the other six motions He took away and fashioned it free from their aberrations.
Such, then, was the sum of the reasoning of the ever-existing God concerning the god which was one day to be existent, whereby He made it smooth and even and equal on all sides from the center, a whole and perfect body compounded of perfect bodies, And in the midst thereof He set Soul, which He stretched throughout the whole of it, and therewith He enveloped also the exterior of its body; and as a Circle revolving in a circle He established one sole and solitary Heaven, able of itself because of its excellence to company with itself and needing none other beside, sufficing unto itself as acquaintance and friend. And because of all this He generated it to be a blessed God.
The woman is holding a compass. We saw that the compass relates to the sphere as it has the same radius as the sphere. And, both sphere and compass (circle) relate to the creation in Plato's Timaeus.
The compass here can also have additional meaning, a compass which is used to draw arcs and circles as well as measure and compare proportions. It is an instrument for geometry and measurement, in which Dürer was well versed.
The compass might be one of the three instruments of measure weight and volume, the scale and the polyhedron, or sphere, being the other two. Measure, weight and volume were used in the apothecaries, who were often alchemists.
Underneath her arm is a closed book. On the spiritual path, one often starts with reading books to gain knowledge. But that can bring you only so far. Then one can easily get depressed, as one realized that book knowledge is limited. The compass then serves as a symbol for those limits. Having closed the book(s), Melancoly is now pondering what to do next.
A set of five keys are hanging from her belt. According to a note from Dürer, keys means power. Dürer was familiar with Marsilio Ficino who promoted neo-platonic ideas. Why five keys? Ficino wrote a letter with the title Quinque Platonicae Sapientiae Claves, or The five keys of Platonic theology.
A putto sits atop an upturned millstone (or grindstone) with a chip in it. He is busy writing on a tablet. There are only two figures in this engraving. The winged figure is the soul, thus the putto probably represents the mind, which is always busy at work, always grinding away at something, trying to figure things out.
Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550), a German painter and printmaker, mainly known for his very small engravings, obviously took Dürer's Melencolia (same misspelling here) as an example for his own engraving. We have the woman with wings, leaning on a closed book, holding a compass in the other hand. The sphere is present, as are the carpenter's tools, and the alchemist's crucibles. An hourglass is behind her.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) was a German Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving. He was influenced early in his career by Dürer's religious prints. This painting was done 18 years after Dürer's Melencolia.
Here we have Melancholia as a young maiden again with wings, or an angel, representing the soul of the alchemist. As with Dürer's Melencolia, she is looking somewhere in the distance, and doesn't see the perfect sphere, symbol of the perfect soul. Three puttos are playing with the sphere, who, in my opinion, represent the ever active mind. The mind of the ordinary person (who is at the start of the alchemical process) is more like a child's mind, ever darting and playing around.
With Dürer's Melencolia, we saw a direct relationship between the sphere and the compass, as they both had the same radius. Here the diameter of the circle and the sphere are the same. In the philosophy of Plato, the sphere is the soul, and the circle is Heaven. Here we have the circle next to the sphere, held by one of the puttos.
On the ledge is a neglected dog, also present in Dürer's Melencolia.
In the background we have several witches flying towards their Sabbath. It was generally believed that melancholy was a mental state caused by malevolent spirits or witches. A Dutch physician Johann Wier, in his De praestigiis daemonum (Of Deceiving Demons], was of the opinion that melancholic people were primarily imagining that they were tortured by spirits of witches.
Peter de Jode (also known as Gerard de Jode, 1570-1634) was a Flemish printmaker, draughtsman, publisher and painter active principally active in Antwerp. This engraving was done after a design by Maarten de Vos.
A rich man is trying to comfort a woman who looks sad while looking at an alchemical distillation vessel on an oven. Both the oven and the glass vessel are broken, so it obvious that her alchemical experiment failed.
Jost Amman (1539–1591) was a Swiss-German artist, celebrated chiefly for his woodcuts, done mainly for book illustrations.
A simple variation of Dürer's Melencolia. The woman has no wings here, but she still is holding the compass, and there is a sphere at her feet. The artist understood the relationship with alchemy as he included the brazier with crucible and bellows, while leaving out many other details.
Franz Isaac Brun (c.1535-c.1610/20) was a German printmaker and goldsmith and metalworker.
Melancholy is sitting an almost bare room, and an even emptier room behind her. An alchemical flask is sitting on a shelf. On the floor we see the sphere that is also present in Dürer's engraving of Melencolia. Next to the sphere is a cube. The cube is an alchemical symbol for the Philosopher's Stone. To the right, on the floor, we have square tool. The square tool stands for truthfulness, honesty. Square, in the old meaning of the word, means honest, equitable, as in "square dealing." To play upon the square is proverbial for to play honestly. In relation to Melancholy, Brun teaches us that one has to be honest with oneself.
Brun's initials are on the cube, as is the date of the engraving: 1569. He was a goldsmith, a profession that often went together with alchemical pursuits.