Studies of Dürer's Angels



Melancholia I

Engraving, 1514

9 3/8 x 7 3/8 inches; 242 x 189 mm

Bartsch 74; Meder 75


"It has usually been thought that Dürer meant this print to typify the insufficiency of human knowledge to attain heavenly wisdom, or to penetrate the secrets of nature.  The old craving from the forbidden fruit is strong in her breast." To this remark, made by Mrs. Heaton (p. 206) in 1869, Wolfflin (1905, p. 247) added:  "She is a winged woman sitting on a stoop near the wall, quite low, close to the ground; leaden, as if she had no intention of soon getting up again; morbid, displeased, almost frozen; only her eyes wander; but everything else is alive; a chaos of objects, all in disarray.  It is based on the writings of Marsilio Ficino, who said that all men who excel in the arts are melancholics."


Symbols in Dürer’s Melencolia I Engraving


  1. The Comet/Haley’s Comet:  They were held to foretell misfortune...

  2. Bat:  A symbol of good luck and longevity.  A symbol of fear.  Awareness of the powers of darkness and chaos.

  3. Ladder:  The relationship between Heaven and Earth.  Symbols of ascension and realization of potential, related to the symbolism of verticality.  The ceremonial ladder had seven rungs, each made of a different metal.  According to Celsus (Origen, Contra, Celsum) the first rung was lead, and corresponded to the ‘heaven’ of Saturn, the second tin (Venus), the third bronze (Jupiter), the fourth iron (Mercury), the fifth ‘the alloy of money’ (Mars), the sixth silver (the moon) and the seventh gold (the sun).  The eighth rung, Celsus tells us, represents the sphere of the fixed stars.  Early Fathers and medieval mystics constantly use the rungs of the ladder between Earth and Heaven in their symbolic shape.  The soul always accomplishes its own ascent step by step.  The three stages of beginning, persevering and completing, of body, soul and spirit, or the ways of purgation, enlightenment and union, are so many different degrees which were to become traditional.

  4. Angel:  Beings who act as intermediaries between God and the world.  They are either purely spiritual beings, or spirits endowed with ethereal or airy bodies.  However, they can only assume a human appearance.  They act as God’s ministers, his messengers, guardians, steering the course of the stars, giving effect to his laws, protecting his elect and so on.  Dignity, Glory and Honor.

  5. Cherub or Putto:  An Angel of the second order of Angels in the celestial hierarchy whose distinctive attribute is knowledge.  The putto has ears in both the engraving and Dürer’s preparatory drawing (Strauss, vol. 3, 1514, no. 24) and (it appears to me) one eye open and one closed.

  6. Wheel:  Fortune, the cycle of life.

  7. Dog: Courage, vigilance and loyalty.

  8. Scales:  The acknowledged symbol of justice, moderation, prudence and balance because their purpose corresponds precisely with the weighing of actions or activities.  Since the notion of fate bears with it that of the individual’s life-span, it is easy to understand why the scales were as much the emblem of Saturn or Cronus.  Scales are the balance of natural forces…bringing matter and time and the visible and the invisible into balance.

  9. Hour-glass:  The hour-glass symbolizes the eternal passage of time, inexorably slipping away until, in the human cycle, it runs out into death.  However, it also carries the significance of a potential reversal of time and return to one’s beginnings.  Fullness and emptiness must follow one another in succession.  There is a flow from the upper to the lower, from the celestial to the terrestrial, and then a reverse flow from the terrestrial to the celestial.  Such is the image of alchemical or mystical choice.  Flight of time and mortality. 

  10. Bell:  The reverberation of the power of God in the living world.  To hear the noise of the bell is to dissolve the limitations of one’s existence in time.  Power to disperse evil spirits.

  11. Sixteen:  (the box below the bell) As the square of four, this number is indicative of the attainment of physical power.  Sixteen is regarded twice eight, it becomes the multiplication of cycles of change and rebirth for the individual.

  12. Square:  The symbol of Earth as opposed to Heaven, but as well, and upon another level, it is the symbol of the created universe as opposed to the uncreated and to the creator.  It is the antithesis of the transcendent.

  13. The Rainbow:  Rainbows are intermediaries and pathways between Heaven and Earth.  They are the bridges used by gods and heroes when they travel between the Earth and the Otherworld.  God’s forgiving of man’s sins and a covenant to the Earth that there will be not be another global flood.  Rainbows herald good things that are to come.

  14. The Compass:  the Symbol of the Act of Creation.

  15. The Cauldron: represents the primal womb where life begins, ends and is reborn.  The cauldron is creative inspiration.

Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, Penguin Books, Penguin Putnam, Inc. New York, New York, 1996 


Produced in 1514, Melencolia I is possibly the most magical of Dürer’s engravings: a universal masterpiece, its complex interpretation has always intrigued scholars.  A bat with open wings bears the title of the work, which refers to the first state of melancholy, closely linked to alchemy.  Matter, in a quiescent state, prepares itself to be transformed.  The main character in the scene is the allegorical winged figure who symbolizes melancholia.  The girl’s face is deliberately kept in the shadows: her sullen face suggests a state of mind which is still dark and troubled, like the black matter which is believed to be the first stage in early experiments into alchemy.  The scene features several instruments, for the moment not in use, but ready to assist the artist’s creative freedom as soon as the first wave of melancholia gives way to an unleashing of brilliant energy.


Anna Kruger/Anna Bennett, Art Book Dürer – Master draftsman of the Renaissance – his life in paintings Dorling Kindersley Publishing, Inc., London, England, 1999, pages 90-91







Sudarium* Spread out by an Angel

Etching, 1516

Signed in the plate with a monogram and date bottom right edge.


Christ’s face is shown on the windblown kerchief.  The Angel soars out of the darkness with four Angels below.  A storm is subsided as suddenly as it has broken.


* The Sudarium of Oviedo


One of the relics held by the cathedral in the town of Oviedo, in the north of Spain, is a piece of cloth measuring approximately 84 x 53 cm. There is no image on this cloth. Only stains are visible to the naked eye, although more is visible under the microscope. The remarkable thing about this cloth is that both tradition and scientific studies claim that the cloth was used to cover and clean the face of Jesus after the crucifixion. We are going to present and look into these claims.


Such a cloth is known to have existed from the gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 6 and 7. These verses read as follows, "Simon Peter, following him, also came up, went into the tomb, saw the linen cloth lying on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself." John clearly differentiates between this smaller face cloth, the sudarium, and the larger linen that had wrapped the body.


The history of the sudarium is well documented, and much more straightforward than that of the Shroud. Most of the information comes from the twelfth century bishop of Oviedo, Pelagius (or Pelayo), whose historical works are the Book of the Testaments of Oviedo, and the Chronicon Regum Legionensium.


According to this history, the sudarium was in Palestine until shortly before the year 614, when Jerusalem was attacked and conquered by Chosroes II, who was king of Persia from 590 to 628. It was taken away to avoid destruction in the invasion, first to Alexandria by the presbyter Philip, then across the north of Africa when Chosroes conquered Alexandria in 616. The sudarium entered Spain at Cartagena, along with people who were fleeing from the Persians. The bishop of Ecija, Fulgentius, welcomed the refugees and the relics, and surrendered the chest, or ark, to Leandro, bishop of Seville. He took it to Seville, where it spent some years.


Saint Isidore was later bishop of Seville, and teacher of Saint Ildefonso, who was in turn appointed bishop of Toledo. When he left Seville to take up his post there, he took the chest with him. It stayed in Toledo until the year 718. It was then taken further north to avoid destruction at the hands of the Muslims, who conquered the majority of the Iberian peninsula at the beginning of the eighth century. It was first kept in a cave that is now called Monsacro, ten kilometres from Oviedo. King Alfonso II had a special chapel built for the chest, called the "Cámara Santa", later incorporated into the cathedral.


The key date in the history of the sudarium is the 14th March 1075, when the chest was officially opened in the presence of King Alfonso VI, his sister Doña Urraca, and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid. A list was made of the relics that were in the chest, and which included the sudarium. In the year 1113, the chest was covered with silver plating, on which there is an inscription inviting all Christians to venerate this relic which contains the holy blood. The sudarium has been kept in the cathedral at Oviedo ever since.