Mitchell B. Merback
Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Durer’s Melencolia I
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018,360
Albrecht Dürer’s famous portrayal of creative effort in paralysis, the
unsurpassed masterpiece of copperplate engraving titled Melencolia I, has stood for centuries as a pictorial summa of
knowledge about the melancholic temperament, a dense allegory of the limits of
earthbound arts and sciences and the impossibility of attaining perfection.
Dubbed the “image of images” for being the most zealously interpreted picture
in the Western canon, Melencolia I
also presides over the origins of modern iconology, art history’s own science
of meaning. Yet we are left with a clutter of mutually contradictory theories,
a historiographic ruin that confirms the mood of its object. In Perfection’s
Therapy, Mitchell Merback reopens the case file and argues for a hidden
intentionality in Melencolia’s
opacity, its structural “chaos,” and its resistance to allegorical closure.
That intentionality, he argues, points toward a fascinating possibility never
before considered: that Dürer’s masterpiece is not only an arresting diagnosis
of melancholic distress, but an innovative instrument for its undoing.
Merback deftly resituates Dürer’s image within the long history of the
therapeutic artifact. Placing Dürer’s therapeutic project in dialogue with that
of humanism’s founder, Francesco Petrarch, Merback also unearths Dürer’s
ambition to act as a physician of the soul. Celebrated as the «Apelles of
the black line» in his own day, and ever since as Germany’s first
Renaissance painter-theorist, the Dürer we encounter here is also the first
modern Christian artist, addressing himself to the distress of souls, including
his own. Melencolia thus emerges as a key reference point in a venture of
spiritual-ethical therapy, a work designed to exercise the mind, restore the
body’s equilibrium, and help in getting on with the undertaking of perfection.
Mitchell B. Merbackis Professor of History of Art at Johns Hopkins University.
Melancolía I (1514)
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)