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Dürer’s Enigma

A Kabbalistic Revelation in Melencolia § I

In: Aries
Author:
Zhenya Gershman Project AWE

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Abstract

According to Panofsky’s widely-accepted theory, the subject of Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Melencolia § I (1514) was intended as a feminine personification of the liberal art Geometry and the temperament Melancholy. However, we argue that this synthesized personification is a façade. The formulaic veneer was meant to camouflage a layer of meaning that was only accessible to those who were familiar with the writings of the Christian Kabbalists Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin. The symbolism of Melencolia § I, like that of its counterpart engraving Saint Jerome in his Study (1514), was influenced by Dürer’s interest in Christian Hebraism. Our research findings show that this image can best be understood as a visual interpretation of Pico’s Humanist manifesto Oratio (1486). Viewed from this perspective the main character of Dürer’s Melencolia § I transcends the bounds of the personification of Melancholy perceived by Panofsky, and transforms into an important figure in Pico’s Oratio, the high angel of Jewish mysticism, Metatron.

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