Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I has cut its black lines deep into the modern imagination. It shows a winged being who sits in apparent dejection, surrounded by unused objects of science, craft and art, holding a pair of dividers as she broods. Her face is a mask of darkness, but her bright eyes glare, revealing an acuteness of mind that contrasts with her exhausted pose.
In 16th-century portraits, the head resting on hand pose was to become a universal image of the soul afflicted by sad thoughts – as in Moretto da Brescia's Portrait of a Young Man in London's National Gallery. The influence of Dürer's print is everywhere in Renaissance Europe. But what is equally amazing is the power of this 1514 work to fascinate us today, as when Günter Grass uses Dürer's print to meditate on modern politics in his 1973 book From the Diary of a Snail.
Dürer's work of art continues to appeal because it is a diagnosis. It describes a malaise in the way a doctor might list symptoms. Sitting around, head in hand? Face a bit shadowy? My diagnosis: melancholia. Helpfully, Dürer even names this condition on the banner held aloft by a bat-like creature.
Since people still suffer from melancholy – more likely calling it depression, the dumps or the blues – Dürer's image continues to resonate. As does his implication that melancholy afflicts the most ambitious human efforts, that it is a historical and collective, not just a personal, fate.
The diagnosis that Dürer offers is rooted in medieval medicine. According to the notion of the "humours", melancholy was caused by an excess of black bile – hence the darkened face and the appropriate black ink. But Dürer offers something else not found in the old pseudo-science – a sense of a soul weighed down by its own intellect. In fact, the roots of his visionary masterpiece lie in Renaissance Italy, which he had visited and whose artists he knew well.
In 15th-century Florence, philosopher Marsilio Ficino claimed that intellectuals, gifted and introspective souls like himself, were especially prone to the malaise of melancholy. He proposed various magical remedies to lift it – often invoking the power of the planet and goddess Venus to bring joy to the joyless.
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