Symbolism Of Albrecht Durer’S “Master Engravings” Essay, Research Paper
Albrecht Durer completed the “Master Engravings” in the years 1513 and 1514. With these three engravings (Knight, Death, and Devil, St. Jerome in His Study, and Melencolia I) he reached the high point of his artistic expression and concentration. each print represents a different philosophical perspective on the “worlds” respectively of action, spirit, and intellect. Although Durer himself evidently did not think of the three as a set, He sometimes sold or gave St. Jerome and Melencolia I as a pair.
In the engraving, Knight, Death, and Devil, it appears that the hero (the Knight) is gaining a moral victory over death. (Fig. 1) The Knight has often been interpreted as Erasmus’s sturdy Christian soldier who scoffs at death and the devil as he goes about God’s work in his journey through life. The conception of the ‘Christian soldier’ embodies and ideal of manly virtue which the traditional instincts of the Germanic race, German mysticism and Northern versions of Renaissance ideals all contributed to form.
The Horse is represented in full profile as to show off it’s perfect proportions; it is forcefully modeled so as to give its perfect anatomy and it moves with regulated step of the riding school so as to give demonstration of perfect rhythm. The fact that a beautiful setter is running by the side of the horse completes the picture of the Christian man as known to the Late Middle Ages – the man who armed with faith and accompanied by religious zeal, symbolized by the faithful hound goes on his way along the narrow path of earthly life menaced by Death and the Devil.
From the gloom of this “rough and dreary scenery there emerge Death and the Devil. Death wears a regal crown and is mounted on a meager, listless jade with a cowbell; but he is even ghastlier in that he is not depicted as an actual skeleton but as a decaying corpse with sad eyes, no lips and no nose. Death also has snakes encircling his head and neck as he slides up to the Knight and tries in vain to frighten him by holding up an hourglass while the swine-snouted Devil sneaks up behind him with a pickaxe. Their failed attempt to capture the rider’s attention conveys the idea of unconquerable progress.
The 1514 engraving of ‘St. Jerome in his Study’ is chronologically approximately in the middle of the group, but it shows the deepest penetration of the subject. (Fig. 2) The Saint has ceased to be a legendary figure and has become the symbol of learned existence and felicity. St. Jerome is working at the far end of the room, which in itself gives the impression of remoteness and peace. His little desk is placed on a large table which otherwise holds nothing but an inkpot and a crucifix. Engrossed in his writing, he if blissfully alone with his thoughts, with his animals, and with his God. The cell, which in previous versions was always more or less cave-like, cold and drear, has now become a warm, comfortable, Late Gothic study; the lion is now really a household pet, blinking peacefully, with a dog asleep at his side. The landscape element is restricted to the morning sun shining in at the window and intimated by the great gourd, transformed into a household plant. Even this harmless gourd has not escaped the attention of the learned seekers after hidden meanings. Wustmann disinterred the ‘Book of Nature’ by Konrad von Meggenberg, published in 1500, and with its aid explained the gourd as a ‘mellow, ideal fruit; the struggles of its period of bloom are forgotten and it is the symbol of the Saint who has renounced the world.’ The skull has been relegated to the windowsill, where it has no more importance than the books or the cushions. The slippers, pushed carelessly aside, give a pleasing suggestion of bachelor habits to the otherwise tidy room. The cardinal’s hat hangs on the wall and the gray head of the silent writer is encircled with a halo. Everything breathes peace – even the little tablet bearing Durer’s monogram and the date is not standing upright, but is lying on the floor.
Durer also explored the psychological possibilities of methods, which, one would think, is almost unfavorable to psychological expression, namely, exact geometrical perspective. The construction of the picture space, impeccably correct from a mathematical point of view, is characterized, first, by the extreme shortness of the perspective distance which, if the room were drawn to natural scale, would amount to only about four feet; second, by the lowness of the horizon which is determined by the eye level of the seated Saint; third, by the eccentric position of the vanishing point which is little more than half a centimeter from the right margin. The shortness of the distance, combined with the lowness of the horizon strengthens the feeling of intimacy. However, the vanishing point prevents the small room from looking cramped and box-like because the north wall is not visible; it gives greater distinction to the play of light on the embrasures of the windows; and it suggests the experience of casually entering a private room rather than of facing an artificially arranged stage.
Finally, Durer himself christened his engraving; with the inscription ‘Melencolia’. (Fig. 3) Durer also interpreted two of the attributes of the seated female figure; he noted down on one occasion: ‘the key means power; the purse means wealth.’ Durer has also told us quite clearly what he understood by melancholy. And we also know something about his spiritual condition at the time when he made this engraving – in May 1514, after a painful illness, his mother died.
The whole conception of melancholy is thus shifted to a plane wholly beyond the compass of his predecessors. Instead of a sluggish housewife we have a superior being – superior, not only by virtue of her wings but also by virtue of her intelligence and imagination – surrounded by the tools and symbols of creative endeavor and scientific research. And here we perceive a second and more delicate thread of tradition that went into the fabric of Durer’s composition.
In their interpretation of the ‘Melancolia’ engraving, the two famous biographers of Durer, Thausing (1876) and Springer (1892), both deviate from a firm basis of historical formulation and interpretation imbued with colorless modern spirituality. Thausing has no doubts whatsoever that the woman sunk in gloomy meditation is human reason, in despair because she has reached the limit of achievement! She is the restless, dissatisfied spirit who brings Faust to the point of confessing that we know nothing. Springer, too, is satisfied with the explanation that intellectual striving consumes the peace of the soul and results in deep depression.
The critic, Paul Weber thought the ‘Melancolia’ is grieved because the old theology is still making brutal use of its power, but the visible reason of her grief is that all the arts and accomplishments have failed to satisfy her and bring her happiness. This can only be achieved through faith. The value of Weber’s contribution to the study of Durer does not lie in the interpretation of the figure of ‘Melancolia’, but in the fact that he was the first to make a systematic attempt to explain, by examining the trend of scholastic thought in Durer’s time, the accessories of the ‘Melancolia’ as attributes of the seven free and seven mechanical arts. The little boy on a millstone and scribbling on a tablet represents Grammar, the most elementary of the seven arts; in the mediaeval representations a learner of the alphabet usually accompanies Grammatica. The scales can be explained as an attribute of Rhetoric, the source of advice in matters of law; Rhetoric is therefore in the service of Justice, who holds the scales. The square of figures is a reference to Arithmetic; the sphere denotes Astronomy, the compasses Geometry, etc. Weber identifies the flowers in the garland encircling the head of ‘Melancolia’ as a type of nightshade, which, according to the conception of the Late Middle Ages, symbolized a propensity to solitude.
The St. Jerome differs from the Knight, Death and Devil in that it opposes the ideal the “vita comtemplativa” to that of the vita activa.” But it differs much more emphatically from the Melencolia I in that it opposes a life in the service of God to what may be called a life in competition with god – the peaceful bliss of divine wisdom to the tragic unrest of human creation. While the St. Jerome and the Knight, Death, and Devil illustrate two opposite methods of reaching a common objective, the St. Jerome and the Melencolia I express two aritithetical ideals. That Durer conceived of these two prints as spiritual “counterparts” within the triad of the “Meisterstiche” can be concluded from the fact that he was in the habit of giving them away together and that collectors looked at and discussed them side by side. No less than six copies were disposed of as pairs while only one copy of the Melancolia I was given singly and no impression of the Knight, Death and Devil changed hands together with either of the two other prints.
In the years 1513 and 1514, Albrecht Durer completed what is now known together as the “Master Engravings,” Knight, Death, and Devil; St. Jerome in His Study; and Melencolia I. In general each print represents a different philosophical perspective on the “worlds respectively, of action, spirit and intellect.
Panofsky, Edwin. The Life and Art of Albrecht Durer. 4th ed. Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1955.
Waetzoldt, Willhelm. Durer and His Times. translated by R.H. Boothroyd. London:
Phaidon Press Ltd, 1950.