In the classic pose of the thinker, her head resting on her hand, sits a female winged figure. She holds a pair of compasses and a closed book, and next to her on a millstone sits a winged putto scribbling on a tablet, and before them lies a sleeping dog. Scattered around the figure are a number of tools and mysterious objects, including a syringe, an oil lamp, a melting pot, scales, an hour glass, a bell, a numerical table and two geometrical shapes, a sphere and a large multi-faceted rock. On one side of this rock, faintly, like a reflection, is the image of a skull. A ladder is leaning against the building which, together with the carpenter's tools, almost gives the scene the appearance of a building site. In the background lies a distant coastal landscape underneath a night sky, strangely illuminated by a comet and a rainbow. A bat with the title of the print written across its spread wings hovers above the scene. We recognise some of the many symbols from other compositions - the sphere as a symbol of chance or fate from Nemesis (lot 39), the scales from Sol Iustitiae (lot 31), and the skull and the hour-glass, which appear as memento mori on the other two 'Master Prints'.
We know that by Dürer's time the melancholic temperament was associated with genius and the pursuit of knowledge. If Saint Jerome (see previous lot) and Melencolia I are indeed companion pieces, and Saint Jerome represents the knowledge of texts, then Melencolia stands for a different, new kind of knowledge - that of empirical, applied science. The ruler, the scale and the pair of compasses are all measuring devices, instruments for the examination of nature. The building tools and the melting pot on the other hand are symbols of human creativity. To Dürer, the observation and comprehension of the natural world was the basis of art. When we consider that the artists of the Renaissance, with Leonardo and Dürer as prime examples, saw themselves as artists as well as scientists, then Melencolia I might be described as a secret self-portrait.
Although Dürer titled this engraving, it has become the most extensively interpreted work in the history of art. The subject is clearly an allegory of melancholy, but the details of its iconography have intrigued and inspired countless art historians and other scholars of all fields.