Albrecht Dürer, ‘Melencolia I (B. 74; M., Holl. 75; S.M.S. 71)’, 1514, Christie's Old Masters

Engraving, 1514, without watermark, a very fine, rich Meder IIa impression, printing very darkly in the shadows, on a large sheet with wide margins, with inky plate edges in places, with a horizontal central crease, mostly visible in the margins and verso, some pale scattered foxing in the margins, in excellent condition.

In the classic pose of the thinker, her head resting on her hand, sits a female winged figure. She holds a pair of compasses and a closed book, and next to her on a millstone sits a winged putto scribbling on a tablet. Before them lies a sleeping dog. Scattered around the figure are a number of tools and mysterious objects, including a syringe, an oil lamp, a melting pot, scales, an hour glass, a bell, a numerical table and two geometrical shapes, a sphere and a large multi-faceted rock. On one side of this rock, faintly, like a reflection, is the image of a skull. A ladder is leaning against the building which, together with the carpenter's tools, almost gives the scene the appearance of a building site. In the background lies a distant coastal landscape underneath a night sky, strangely illuminated by a comet and a rainbow. A bat with the title of the print written across its spread wings hovers above the scene. We recognize some of the many symbols from other compositions - the sphere as a symbol of chance or fate from Nemesis (lot 26), the scales from Sol Iustitiae (lot 1), and the skull and the hour-glass, which appear as memento mori on the other two of the so-called 'Master Prints': Knight, Death and the Devil and Saint Jerome in his Study (lots 44 and 45).

We know that by Dürer's time the melancholic temperament was associated with genius and the pursuit of knowledge. If Saint Jerome and Melencolia I are indeed companion pieces, and Saint Jerome represents the knowledge of texts, then Melencolia stands for a different, new kind of knowledge - that of empirical, applied science. The ruler, the scale and the pair of compasses are all measuring devices, instruments for the examination of nature. The building tools and the melting pot on the other hand are symbols of human creativity. To Dürer, the observation and comprehension of the natural world was the basis of art. When we consider that the artists of the Renaissance, with Leonardo and Dürer as prime examples, saw themselves as artists as well as scientists, then Melencolia I might be described as a secret self-portrait. Although Dürer titled this engraving, it has become the most extensively interpreted work in the history of art. The subject is clearly an allegory of melancholy, but the details of its iconography have intrigued and inspired countless art historians and other scholars of all fields.

The present impression, resplendent on a magnificent, large sheet, compares favourably to the two Meder IIa impressions in the British Museum.

About Albrecht Dürer

Considered one of the foremost artists of the Renaissance period, Albrecht Dürer’s extensive work in printmaking transformed the categorization of the medium from craft to fine art. Often depicting religious subjects, Dürer’s woodcuts and engravings demonstrated unprecedented technical skill, tonal variation, and compositional sophistication. Dürer theorized extensively on linear perspective and anatomical proportion, concerns that were articulated in a vast body of written work as well as in his paintings and prints. Dürer’s skill earned him the role of court artist for Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V, under whom he created a number of paintings and altarpieces. Dürer’s series of self-portraits, created throughout his career, represent some of his most iconic works.

German, 1471-1528, Nuremberg, Germany, based in Nuremberg, Germany