Melencholia I is one of the three “master prints” by Albrecht Dürer, widely held to represent the pinnacle of his skill as an engraver, if not European printmaking in general. Aptly described as an intellectual self-portrait of Dürer himself, it depicts the personification of Melancholy brooding among a variety of tools and instruments that make reference to geometry (considered to be the underlying language of all creative pursuits). The numbered grid is a magic square; its four quadrants, corners and centers all equal the number 34. To its immediate left, an hourglass suggests the pressure that creative individuals feel to perfect their crafts within the limited time allotted in life.
What common thread, if any, unites Dürer’s master prints is a matter of no small controversy among scholars. One theory has it that each represents one of the three modes of virtuous living; Knight Death and the Devil being the active, Saint Jerome in His Study the contemplative, and Melencholia I the intellectual.