Author(s): Mitchell B. Merback
Fine Arts | No Category
Albrecht Durer'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 Durer's masterpiece is not only an arresting diagnosis of melancholic distress, but an innovative instrument for its undoing. Merback deftly resituates Durer's image within the long history of the therapeutic artifact.
Placing Durer's therapeutic project in dialogue with that of humanism's founder, Francesco Petrarch, Merback also unearths Durer'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 Durer 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. Merback is Professor of History of Art at Johns Hopkins University.