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Dürer's Melencolia : The "Gateway to Heaven"

Dernière mise à jour : 1 mai 2023

Albrecht Dürer - Melencolia I, 1514

Extract from :

Melencolia I

by David Ritz Finkelstein

"Limen caelo"

"The name for the engravings is taken from the motto that appears on a banderole. Actually, the motto is “MELENCOLIA §I”, with the symbol §, a fancy S, in a lighter

style than the rest.

Melancholia is the transliterated Greek for melancholy and black bile. One Latin form is melancolicus; The German is Melancholie. The Italian was Malinconia. Dürer himself uses the etymologically reasonable form "Melancolia" in a title-page woodcut of 1503.

In no language is the word melencolia, a spelling odd even for Dürer. The spelling of the time was so variable that we cannot be sure, but this spelling may be imposed on the overt message by a covert one that Dürer wished both to record and conceal in an anagram. The encodings we have already found, the misspelling, and the cryptic appended symbols §I suggest this possibility.

Agrippa could well have put anagrams, gematria, and magic squares into Dürer’s mind. They are all in his Occult Philosophy. They are also among the techniques used to squeeze new meanings out of old texts in the Baraita of Thirty-Two Rules of Rabbi Eliezer ben Jose the Galilean, who flourished in the second half of the second century C.E. and was cited importantly in later years. Such lore became more accessible to Florentine Neo-Platonists like Agrippa, an active Hebraist, when Jews expelled from Spain in 1492 settled in Florence.

In any case, by the 16th century letter-permutation was a standard way to protect intellectual property. The Royal Society and the system of scientific archives were still over a century in the future. Writers of the time who solved an important problem could not guard their intellectual property by publishing or patenting. Some protected their priority by permuting the letters of their solution and publishing the result together with the problem.

Earlier Roger Bacon scrambled the formula for gunpowder in this way in order to prevent the proliferation of this terrible weapon. Later Galileo would scramble his discoveries of the phases of Venus and the rings of Saturn.

Mathematicians scrambled their theorems. The resulting meaningless jumble of letters declared on its face that it was a cipher. Sometimes it was misconstrued by a false rearrangement. In the next degree of concealment, the scrambled letters themselves spell out a cover message, the anagram. This can hide not only a message but even the existence of that message.

MELENCOLIA I does this well. Only the cover message has been read in recent centuries as far as I know. I unscrambled the anagram as soon as I began to work at deciphering the engraving, as follows. Since Panofsky declared the engraving autobiographical, I tentatively supposed that the motto represented Dürer himself. To see how he might describe himself graphically I went to his coat-of-arms (1490, 1523).

The 1523 version centers his famous monogram and the year above his coat-of-arms.

Albrecht Dürer - Coat of Arms of the House of Dürer, 1523

Next below them come clichés one finds in any dictionary of heraldry :