Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Durer's Melencolia I

Albrecht Dürer lived from 1471 – 1528; a time of change and upheaval in the cultural and spiritual life of Europe. He was born in Nuremberg, and travelled widely in Europe, becoming one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, and one who first developed the self-portrait as a meaningful artistic study.

His engraving Melencolia I is one of his best known works, but there seems to be no real consensus about the interpretation of the subject matter. At all events, it is an evocative picture, richly suggestive in its composition and subject matter. It is generally thought to belong to a series that includes The Knight, Death and the Devil; The Prodigal Son and St. Jerome. However, its title, Melencolia I, seems to argue that there should be three other engravings on the theme of the three other humours, Sanguinity, Choler and Phlegma. No such engravings exist, as far as we know, and one would be hard put to it to ascribe with any certainty the humours mentioned to the other three named works. The chemist and author John Read sees Melencolia I as full of alchemical symbolism, and the art historian Erwin Panofsky calls it a “spiritual self-portrait”. Others again see the influence of Plato’s Hippias Major (a dialogue on the nature of beauty) and of the Renaissance mathematician Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportia (a study of mathematical and artistic proportion); works which Dürer is known to have studied. I have no wish to contradict any of these commentators, but I should like to offer another alternative reading of the work.

To try to come a little closer to the picture, we might consider one particular aspect of the cultural life of the time, namely the field of education.

During the Renaissance, the subjects taught at school were those that had been taught since the Middle Ages: the Trivium: Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectics (later replaced by Logic) and the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Music, Astronomy and Geometry. These were known collectively as the Seven Lively Arts. It is true that Grammar, Arithmetic and so on can be thought of today as dry, abstract things, but once upon a time we told stories about them, and even had an idea of how they looked. They were visualised like this:

Grammar is the oldest. She is a hag who had come into the world at the time of Osiris. She lived far from the haunts of men until she was discovered by Hermes. She carries a sharp knife to perform surgery on the lips and teeth of those who could not otherwise speak properly. Her planet is the Moon.

Rhetoric is a beautiful, majestic woman of mature years, dressed in a highly colourful robe. Her planet is Venus.

Dialectics is a pale woman of severe aspect, dressed all in black. She holds a serpent in her hand, ready to sting with the venom of sleepiness those not attuned to head-knowledge. Mercury is her planet.

Arithmetic is a beautiful and stately figure. Rays of light radiate from her brow and ray back, emerging from unity and returning to unity. She belongs to the Sun.

Astronomy appears in a fiery ball of light. She is a maiden in a robe decorated all over with diamonds. She wears a crown of stars, and in her hands is a book made of various metals in which the progress and paths of the stars are described. Her planet is Saturn.

Music comes announced by a symphony, and is accompanied by the Three Graces, who go before her, singing as they go. She is harmonious and well-balanced, and her planet is Mars.

Last of all comes Geometry: a woman of sturdy limbs, who holds a pair of compasses in one hand and a sphere in the other. Her task is to describe and explain the world of Nature to the Gods. She belongs to the planet Jupiter.

A story in which they each take a small but important part is told in the Anticlaudianus of Alanus ab Insulis, the 12th century scholar, better known, perhaps, for his contribution to the School of Chartres. This was a spiritual movement that, among other things, tried to reconcile in an organic way the teachings of Plato, with its insistence on things in the material world being representations of spiritual truths, and the work of Aristotle, which held thinking to be of prime importance in the spiritual life of humanity. The teachings of the School of Chartres were encapsulated in artistic form in the great cathedral of Chartres. For them, philosophy was a vivid and colourful drama of the spirit. To illustrate this a little, here in a simplified form is the story of The Perfect Man, from the Anticlaudianus of Alanus ab Insulis.

The Perfect Man

The Goddess Natura was at the side of God at the Creation. Her garment was a robe of great beauty, and represented on it were all the creatures in nature. Only one part of her robe was torn and grimy, the part representing the human being.

The gods of the world came together to discuss the creation of a new and perfect human being. The world of nature could supply the body, but a new soul would be necessary for such a being. However, only God could provide a new soul.

The seven Virtues, Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Courage, Faith, Hope and Love, decided among themselves who should make the long journey through the planetary spheres to ask for this new human soul. It was agreed among them that Prudence should be the one to undertake this journey.

The Seven Lively Arts worked together to provide a vehicle in which Prudence should travel. Grammar made the shafts, and Rhetoric decorated them with bright colours and designs. Dialectics fashioned the axles, and Music, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy each provided a wheel.

The chariot was to be drawn by five horses, each horse one of the outer five senses. And so Prudence started on her long voyage through the starry spaces and the planetary spheres towards the Godhead.

On the way, the five horses began to fail. One by one they fell asleep and would not be awakened. Only Hearing remained wakeful, and alone drew the chariot onwards. Prudence found her strength and courage failing, and fainted, but Faith came to her aid and revived her. Together they made the rest of the journey.

They made their request, to which God acceded. He commanded nous, the Holy Spirit, to produce the Idea of the new human soul. When this was done, God created the soul from the Idea that the Holy Spirit had formed.

Prudence and Faith now returned to the world with the soul of the new human being. The Four Elements provided a body for this pristine new being, and Music, Arithmetic and Harmony brought the soul and the body together.

Seeing this new creation, spirits of vengeance, the Furies, began a ferocious attack, but the seven Virtues protected the Human Being, who was now free to live in the world, and to reign over the new Golden Age.

Melencolia I

Now, think of Dürer's "Melencolia I". The seated figure is clearly a picture of Geometry. Note the compasses in her hand, and the sphere on the left of the picture. Notice also the magic square on the wall. Each planet has its own particular magic square, and this one is for Jupiter, Geometry's planet. Then, there is the large geometrically formed block, the so-called "Dürer Solid". It somehow seems to clutter the scene in its weightiness, and yet it is not rough rock, but carefully formed. There are carpentry tools lying on the floor, - and what is carpentry if not a version of practical geometry?  Outside, the world is darkening, in spite of the rainbow and comet in the background and the “black bat night” of Melancholy unfurls her banner.

Why then is Geometry no longer describing and explaining the world to the Gods? The putto, or cherub to the left of the central figure, with nothing to report, looks listless and glum as Geometry sits motionlessly watching, her eyes burning into the distance. The ladder seems to lead nowhere; the bell is still; the sands of time trickle through the hourglass.

The melancholy temperament occurs when the physical, the material, weighs on the soul, threatening to overwhelm it. That seems to be what is happening in this picture. The Dürer Solid form, the wood and carpentry tools lying about, and the ladder almost overwhelm the composition. The scales on the wall remind us again of the weight of things, while also hinting at the direction in which science is moving. Only that which can be weighed and measured will be accorded any reality. Meanwhile the dog - symbolic of the active soul from the days of Socrates until the Grail writers of the 13th century - lies inert. What has become of the Golden Age?

Dürer himself was one who was well able to describe, if not to explain, the world to his fellow man. We have only to think of his plant and animal studies, especially his study of the rhinoceros – a creature that he never saw, but was able to reconstruct almost perfectly, from a description given him by another! The artist himself looks out at us from his self-portraits, and we see there something of a melancholy calm, and a questioning look. He was well aware of the intellectual life of his time and highly sensitive to the changes in the spiritual life that led to the Reformation. The Human Being comes increasingly to the fore as the Gods appear to withdraw their influence. Questions arise about the role of the Human Being. About eighty years after Dürer, Shakespeare’s characters, speak of “this muddy vesture of decay” or “this quintessence of dust” in reference to the human body. What has become, here, of the Perfect Man? The Earth is either a “goodly frame” or on the other hand, “a sterile promontory”; while the heavens, “this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” can be described in the same breath as “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours”.

This view of the world is surely what inspires Melencolia I. Dürer was among the first to see the onset of materialism and to understand the price that we pay for it. The Seven Lively Arts have lost their liveliness. By the time Shakespeare goes to school, Dialectics is replaced by Logic, and which is Logic’s planet? Mercury, planet of communication, can be seen as busily active in Dialectics, the rigorous pursuit, through question and answer, of truth. Logic, on the other hand, relies entirely on the morality of those who use it, whether it is employed in the pursuit of truth or not. At this moment in History, 1514, date of Melencolia I, the connection with the cosmos is fading, and human beings begin to experience themselves as more and more distant from the Gods.

Those exalted female beings, the Seven Lively Arts, make up the “sevenfold feminine” which, in Goethe’s words, “leads us on high”. What might appear to us now as mundane academic subjects were once experienced as living beings of a soul nature that can lead us to higher realms of consciousness. Goethe was able to appreciate their qualities, and this appreciation enlivened his scientific studies. However, as Rudolf Steiner once mentioned, “these ladies have become rather thin”. 

It is some five centuries since Dürer pointed the way that things were going. The materialistic view of the world is wearily familiar to us. Nevertheless, we can all have a passion, for instance, for music, or become very enthusiastic about the study of astronomy, or, indeed, any of these so-called lively arts, and ‘enthusiasm’ once meant possession by a God. It was the study of geometry that first warmed Rudolf Steiner’s heart with the hope that it is indeed possible to share spiritual truths with others in an objective, scientific way. The Goetheanistic approach to science is gathering interest in more and more places. There is modest reason to be hopeful that, in the words of Christopher Fry’s character Meadows in his play A Sleep of Prisoners:

                        “…The frozen misery
                        Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
                        The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
                        The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.”

There is no doubt, however, that a grave spiritual crisis confronts us. The summer edition of New View is largely devoted to this theme. In A Sleep of Prisoners, Meadows goes on to say that, in our time, “wrong/ Comes up to face us everywhere, /Never to leave us till we take/ The longest stride of soul men ever took.”

Yet, Goethe once described the essence of duty as “loving that which we have to do.” We all certainly have to do with the Seven Lively Arts, one way or another. Perhaps if we could bring some fresh warmth of heart to them, truly learn to love them anew as the gifts of mighty beings of soul, we might begin to put some flesh once again on the bones of the poor “thin ladies”, and thereby maybe equip ourselves for that “longest stride of soul”.

What does that mean in practice? I believe that it means something like this: that Grammar is no longer perceived as simply parsing and clause analysis, or the pedantic jostling of syntax, but the life force in the living and continually evolving being of language. Rhetoric need not be a matter of slogans, clichés and sound bites, but can find herself again in the beauty and truth of poetry. Logic should no longer be the amoral mechanism of electric switch-like syllogistic exercises, or quasi-mathematical processes, but achieve that moral quality needed to be part of the highest aspirations of humankind. Astronomy might reveal to us not only the beauty of the cosmos, but also its form and meaning. Arithmetic could be no longer a matter of the manipulation of figures, often taking place outside the manipulator’s consciousness, on calculators and the like. She could once more be the study of the luminous rainbow qualities of numbers, for ever emanating from and returning to the single brilliance of the One. Music would continue to delight us as it always has, but she could be exalted from the darker rhythms of the will so that we could begin to hear again the hidden music in the world around and above us. Geometry could be perceived once more as the interplay of spiritual beings; the metamorphoses of line, point and plane; expanding our inner world to infinity. All our areas of study could come to new life once we realise with enthusiasm what they truly are.

What a liberation this could mean from the dull, mechanistic world view that is presented to us in our culture from so many sides! Dürer’s melancholy Geometry might then have something new to report to the Gods.

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