Artistic Melancholy

A detail from Albrecht Durer's engraving,  Melancholia

A detail from Albrecht Durer's engraving, Melancholia

As we have seen in previous lectures, there are many levels of meaning or complexity of notions behind the image in a work of art. We see this in Dürer's "Adam & Eve" and "Evangelists & Apostles," and even in his conception of himself as recorded in the engraving "Melancholy." Raphael depicted Michelangelo in this traditional pose of melancholy- deep in solitary thought with his head resting on his hand. The artist was not always portrayed as having  a melancholic temperament, the traditional sterotype going back only to the 16th century.

The origins of temperament are connected to theories of medicine developed in the 5th century B.C. by Hippocrates. He established the theory of the four humours which we have discussed. When in balance, a person is healthy, and an excess of any one of these produces disease. Galen, writing in the 2nd century. A.D., was concerned with Greek medical thought which he summed up and transmitted to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In many ways, these notions were believed up to the present. Modern medical science is really new. The practice of using leeches applied to the skin to cure diseases, diseases caused by an excess of blood, was well-known until about 150 years ago here, and is still prac­ticed in some parts of Italy today. When enough human interest is applied to a subject, we begin to find out more about it. We develop concepts that can be checked through an analytic approach of intuition and observation, usually a combination of both. By raising questions about origins and basic essences, radical ques­tions that get to the root of the problem, we begin to build up a body of knowledge and understanding. Only in the last couple of hundred years, has our understanding of the human body made any sig­nificant sense. Only in the last 50 years or so has the field of Psychiatric medicine developed with Freud. In the Middle Ages, the association of the four humours with psychological types led to a definition of certain character types. Man's temperament was not only defined as to physiological characteristics, but also with intellectual and professional dispositions.

It was Aristotle who first made connections between the mel­ancholic humor and outstanding talent, thus, a link between genius and melancholy. This idea was not spelled out until much later, for in the Middle Ages, melancholy was regarded mainly as a physical disorder or as a sin on the theological level, the sin of sloth. The Aristotelian concept was revived in the Renaissance, for the interest in the humors led to a quasi-scientific investigation and interpretation of original Greek and Latin texts. In the book, De Vita Triplici (Three Lives) by Marsilio Ficino published at the end of the 15th century, we get the first explicit revival of this classical concept of melancholy being associated with creative genius.

These are the ideas, mixed and interrelated, that help us to better understand what kind of questions were raised in the Ren­aissance, questions as to the identity of the artist-- what kind of person he was and the nature of his creation. Plato also had notions about creativity, and he attributed it to "divine madness" that grips the artist. It must be remembered that both Ficino, Plato, and Aristotle are referring to literary artists. Creativity in this realm was respectable, for literature was a proper art form where as painting and sculpture were still considered to be a craft or common work. In fact, even among artists of the Renaissance, con­siderable contempt was held for different mediums. Leonardo considered painting to be far more noble than sculpture, for the sculptor got his hands dirty. Benedetto Varchi made an inquiry of this subject to many prominent artists in 1546. Michelangelo was one of these artists, and in his reply he took an opposing stance from that of Leonardo by defending sculpture. He put it in terms that both were really equal.


In the Renaissance, we find that different planets have dif­ferent sets of influences. Mercury had been the patron of the arts since the days of ancient Greece; however, in the 1400's we see a shift away from Mercury to the planet of Saturn representing the melancholic temperament. This was the result of a very interesting process that went on in terms of ideas. Between the 5th and the 3rd centuries B.C., the Greeks "Mythologized" the sky. They noticed, and identified the planets and gave them human properties in order to differentiate them and work them into their ideas of the cosmos. They attributed human aspects to them as they had done to their gods. For example, the planet that appeared red was named Mars after the warrior-god whose domain was war, plunder, rape, and misery. Those born under his sign would be of the choleric type. The swiftly moving planet was named Mercury. His Greek equivalent was Hermes, the god of commerce, the invention of the sciences, of music, and the arts. One of a series of woodcuts from about 1480 by the unknown artist referred to as the Hausbuch­meister, shows the children of mercury as being industrious and devoted to study. They include watchmakers, organ builders, sculp­tors, and painters. Hence, according to astrological tradition at this time, artists were born under the sign of Mercury.     

Why does the astrological tradition change in the Renaissance to the sign of Saturn? And why does this changed attitude last for only about 100 years?  There are good reasons for the initial change. In Ficino's re-assessment of the Aristotelian concept, men endowed with genius had a saturnine rather than a mercurial temperament; hence, Saturn had to be the ruling planet for this type.

We see increasingly complex notions of what the public's image was of the artist. This becomes important for what the artist thinks of himself and his actions according to this image. The artist of the Renaissance wanted propriety, to be thought of as an educated man. We find this notion in the long tradition of ut picturs poesis, a phrase taken from Horace literally meaning "in painting as in poetry." This was the notion used to justify the activity of painting and sculpture. A basic article was written about this by R.W. Lee in the December 1940 issue of Art Bulletin. It is a very long and detailed article about the tradition, changes, and influences of the phrase.

On this issue, Ficino represents one of the key achievements of Renaissance thought. He united the traditions of the melancholic creativity of Aristotle and the divine madness of Plato. The res­ulting idea was that only the melancholic temperament, under the rule of Saturn, was capable of Plato's creative enthusiasm. Ficino had a very structured view of the world in which everything had a level, a place, and a system of correspondence. This has traditions that have continued today which says a lot about the quality of this thought and this approach to the world.


Ficino is also important for he studied the relationship between music and visual art. This is a field that is largely un­explored; however, individual references do come up in ways and places that are most unexpected. Poussin, a logical French academy painter of the middle 1600's, wrote a letter in defense of his paintings to a friend and patron. What is interesting in this letter is that he quotes word for word from a contemporary musical theoretician. He refers to the theory of the modes, for music was written in various modes. The Greeks too had a variety of modes - Dorian, Lydian, Ionian, Phrygian, Hyperlydian. We do not know what Greek music actually sounded like. We have texts about it, and we even have a fragment of Greek music in a play by Euripedes, one of the only physical evidences of notation of Greek music. The prob­lems of rhythm are closely associated with material structure, the poetry in the text of the play. This tradition of musical thought was preserved, changed, and misunderstood. It is the misunderstandings in the history of anything in the humanities that is as interesting, if not more interesting, than something that has been understood correctly.

Zarlino, the Venetian musical theoretician from whom Poussin took the quote in the letter, knew Greek very well and had read original texts, so he talked knowingly about modes in music. The modes are mentioned explicitly in Plato's Republic, with only two kinds being acceptable to his totalitarian state. They were the Dorian, which had religious qualities and the Phrygian that was very important for war. He does not consider aesthetic qualities, only how music can help the state. He excludes all the other modes as being dangerous. Aesthetic experiences that cannot be totally understood or controlled are truly dangerous to the authoritarian mentality.

The effects of music upon people is what becomes interesting in the Renaissance, the ways in which it affects the soul. In this regard, Descartes wrote a treatise on the passions of the soul, demonstrating the philosophical concerns with human responses that parallel a concern with speculative philosophy or with magic.

The important point is that this concern does not stop here. We have established that a contemporary of Poussin wrote about music. We also find Kandinsky writing about music and the visual arts in 1910. Sources for these go all the way back to Pythagoras who was even looked upon by Plato as a source. The idea here is that there is a basic structure to the universe and that this is reflected in music, for music is a study of proportions as seen in scales and notes. The notion of mathematics, speculative or mag­ical, underlie this theory of music and is carried through to the Renaissance.

For Ficino, music is also important. He applies the theories of humours on complex levels of proportions to the universe and to everything within it. For example, all different types of stones have magical properties and these are more or less closely associated with particular heavenly bodies. The idea of the birthstone comes from this tradition of magical thought.

As stated before, astrology was a fascination in the Renaissance. The ancient and medieval astronomers and astronomical observations (pertaining to heavenly bodies) were always intertwined with the man doing the observation; hence, it becomes astrology. Astrology refuses to accept chance in the structure of the universe, so it becomes concomitant with Christian theology at this time. It as­sumes that movements of heavenly bodies are not coincidental with earthly events; hence, their relative positions at a key mo­ment in life (birth) can and do condition the realm of potential­ities of the person born at that time.

Recent physics has not supported astrological theories by any means, but there have been certain parallels in thought that leave some of the philosophical implications open, those that are nec­essary for astrology to work. It is difficult to find a scientific basis for astrology, and astronomy problems enter in here. Astro­physics provides a technological basis for the relationship of the individual to the planets. Einstein's theory of uniform gravitation says that there is different gravitational pull for each portion of a planet. If we try to show the individual's relation to a planet in terms of numbers, we find that the size of the angle produced by drawing a line from the person to the particular spot on the planet is a very small number. Hence, two babies born at the same time, one in Santa Monica and the other in Pasadena, have different num­erical relationships, no matter how minute, to the same planet, because these two cities exert different gravitational pulls due to their geographic positions.

Instead of talking about the solar system or even the universe, let us now talk about relative size in terms of man. We know how human beings are procreated, we know about genes and even about the minute atoms on these microscopic genes. We arrive at an astronomical number when comparing the size of the atom to the size of the adult human being. Yet, no matter how large this number is, we know that each atom does affect the configuration of the gene and does change or condition what we are--a potential then modified by experience or culture. These two points are very difficult to argue. If we insist on scientific exactitude in one direction, we have an intellectual obligation to examine it in the other. We arrived at very large and very small numbers, so we can see that it is still an open case.


It is difficult for us to believe and accept that we are ruled by the planets, the basis for astrology. However, it has always been fascinating to human beings. As art historians, we are in­terested in art as products of the creative act, and we must find out what these works meant in their own time so as to understand more clearly what they mean in the context of our civilization and society. To ignore astrology would be to do so at the peril of our history, for we are involved in all the humanities. It involves human beings, and we have an intellectual obligation to question and be skeptical about everything human beings believe in. We try to make sense out of these ideas, but even if they don't make sense we cannot deny their existence or even the relevance to our subject matter.

T.S. Eliot shows his concern for the question of magic in "The Waste Land," for he writes as follows:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is a man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking around in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
--(lines 43-59)

What does this mean? The system that Eliot refers to is astrology intertwined with the tradition of the Tarot cards. He derives most of his imagery and symbolism from a book by Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance. In fact, Eliot writes about this book and the Tarot cards in the notes on "The Wasteland." He refers the reader to this study by saying,"Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston's book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much bet­ter than my notes can do..." Eliot, in another note, gives his explanation of what the Tarot cards mean in relation to his poem. He says,

"I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V (of this poem). The Phoenician Sailor and the Merchant appear later; also the "crowds of people," and Death by Water is executed in Part IV. The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate quite arbitrarily with the Fisher King himself."-----(T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. Notes from pages 50-51.)

This concern for magic comes up in the visual arts too. There are representatives of the tarot cards in the 16th century that are closely associated with images printed in the 1400's for the masses. The printed image provided a cheap imitation of paintings for people to hang in their homes. These were religious images or those asso­ciated with folk beliefs, the Tarot cards for example. The science of printing was developed and related to common beliefs. With the development, new techniques, new subject matter, and new content were introduced. Printing became a mass commodity.

The fact that the Tarot cards have been a concern to people for 500 years, and that they are documented for that period of lime, makes it an important aspect to study in the humanities in general. It is another structure, another way in which man has organized himself vis-à-vis the cosmos and the universe. Those things which would otherwise remain incomprehensible to him were explained in visual symbols and poetic images. This represents the product of hundreds of years of practical psychology.

Tarot Deck

There are 71 cards in the deck. Some of the images can be re­lated to symbols on our modern bridge deck while other cards, the Greater Arcana, are more powerful and are excluded. These cards have specific visual and poetic images that help the gypsy tell the fortune, and they also have magical qualities. The cards are an excellent example of a visual work of art produced on a cultural level.

This article has been compiled from a transcription of a lecture by Kurt von Meier in 1966, for class Art 1C at UCLA.