An image charged with dynamism, fantasy and eroticism, Melancholia is one of the most iconic and enigmatic subjects in Cranach’s oeuvre. Its iconography, which is highly original, complex and somewhat unsettling, warrants a detailed description. Set in an austere chamber, with a small opening to the right on to a rocky landscape, a winged woman sits, dressed in a lavish vermilion dress, her long hair sensuously flowing down her shoulders, seemingly preoccupied with the sharpening of a wooden stick. In front of her, eight nude children dance frantically to the sound of a drum and pipe, played by two of their companions, while five further children have collapsed in exhaustion on the floor. Dominating the upper third of the composition, a threatening black cloud filled with wild and fanciful creatures permeates the space. Alluring young women, hovering on flying carpets and charging horses, use their carnal charms to subjugate men, while hybrid demons, reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s most frightening creations, complete the devilish procession. The head of an old bearded man emerges ominously from the far right of the cloud, with the word MELANCHOLIA projecting from his lips towards the winged figure below.
Cranach treated the subject of Melancholia only four times in his prolific career. Dating to 1533, this panel is his last exploration of the theme and in many ways it represents the culmination of his long reflections on the subject. The three other panels vary in both format and specific iconography: the earliest, dating to 1528, is now in a private collection; while the other two works, both dating to 1532, are in the Musée Unterlinden in Colmar and in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. All four versions are inspired by an engraving of 1514 by Albrecht Dürer (fig. 1), the other titan of the German Renaissance. While Cranach’s earlier treatments of the theme remain relatively close to the original source, this painting represents more of a departure.
Dieter Koepplin has argued convincingly (op. cit.) that although Cranach was quoting formally from Dürer’s work, his intentions were radically different. While the debate surrounding the exact meaning of Dürer’s print is still very much alive, it is generally agreed that melancholy, which was perceived during the Middle Ages as a sinful humour akin to sloth and denial of God, is presented in Durer’s image as a condition necessary to achieving artistic, scientific and philosophical genius. However, this positive humanist interpretation of melancholy was still far from meeting with general consensus and one of its strongest adversaries was the great religious reformer Martin Luther, a close friend of Cranach. Indeed, in his writings Luther frequently described melancholy as a devilish affliction: ‘All heaviness of mind and melancholy come from the devil; especially these thoughts, that God is not gracious unto him’ (M. Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther, ed. and translated by W. Hazlitt, Philadelphia, 1883, p. 334).
It is the evil origin of melancholy and not its positive humanist associations that Cranach is representing in this panel. The flock of witches and their grotesque retinue are the cause for the winged woman’s despondent state. The dark cloud from which they emerge may be a further reference to Luther’s writings: ‘Many devils […] are also in the thick black clouds, which cause hail, lightnings and thunderings and poison the air, the pastures and grounds’ (ibid., p. 307). The bearded head at the helm of the dark swarm has been identified as Saturn, the Greek god and planet under whose influence the melancholics were believed to have been born. The winged figure’s activity has been seen as an attempt to dispel her sombre mood by crafting a magic wand to ward off the evil creatures surrounding her: peeling a stick so that ‘no spirit rest twixt wood and bark’ (R. Klibansky, E. Panofsky, F. Saxl, op. cit., pp. 343 and 382). An alternative reading is that this occupation is without purpose and thus a further reflection of her idleness and apathy (C. Heck, op. cit., p. 262).
The inclusion of the fifteen boisterous children in this painting remains enigmatic. The design would appear to derive from an engraving of the same subject by Andrea Mantegna, which is now lost but is recorded in the 1685 inventory of Cesare d’Ignazio d’Este in Ferrara: ‘sixteen children who are playing music and dancing, with Melancolia written above’ (inventory published in G. Campori, Raccolta di Cataloghi ed Inventarii inediti, Modena, 1870, p. 328). They may be included to represent merriment and light-heartedness, in contrast to the morose state of the winged allegory. There is also a connection between the dancing children in this painting and illustrations in alchemical treatises of the period, which would often depict frolicking children to imply that, once its secrets had been unveiled, alchemy was no more complicated than child’s play (fig. 2) (G.F. Hartlaub, op. cit.). Furthermore, alchemists were notoriously prone to melancholy, an emotion triggered by their impossible quest to transform base metals into gold and access divine knowledge. Witches, with their mysterious dark rituals and licentious behaviour, captivated the imagination of Cranach and his contemporaries, and are frequently depicted with great imagination in engravings of the day. Dürer’s Witch Riding on a Goat of c. 1500 is close to the horse-riding hag in the present painting, and similarly combines the theme of witchcraft with the representation of putti (fig. 3).
Melancholia herself is an ambivalent figure. It is unclear as to whether she is a victim of devilish influence or yet another femme fatale, as her alluring body and eye-catching attire might suggest. Yves Hersant highlighted this duality by describing this ‘red melancholia’ as having the ‘diabolical charm’ of an ‘apparently chaste angel’ (op. cit.). Although Cranach is focusing on the satanic origin of melancholy in this image, he evidently relished in the portrayal of this seductive young beauty, likening her to the cohort of other temptresses he had depicted, from Eve to Salome, and Judith to Venus.
The enduring mystery that shrouds Melancholia’s meaning only heightens its appeal, and many of the themes it incorporates - irrational fears, sadness leading to folly, erotic desire and artistic genius - continue to resonate today, offering a journey into the confines of the human psyche. These eternal concerns have been central to generations of painters working after Cranach. The demoniac cloud in this painting finds an unexpected echo in Goya’s nightmarish apparitions in his powerful 1799 engraving for his series Los Caprichos ‘El sueño de la razón produce monstruos’ (fig. 4). The existential angst at work in Cranach’s panel found radical new expression in Edvard Munch’s Melancholy of 1906, where a young woman wearing a similarly bright vermilion dress weeps on a deserted beach (fig. 5). Capturing an essential and enduring human condition, Cranach’s intriguing beauty has still not divulged all of her secrets, making her all the more desirable as she retains her magnetic power over the viewer.
Dr. Werner Schade and Dr. Dieter Koepplin have both confirmed the attribution (the former on inspection of the original at the time of the 2006 sale and the latter on the basis of images), pointing out that this is almost certainly the picture that was formerly signed and dated ‘1533’, recorded as the prime version of this composition in M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg (op. cit., 1932 and 1978, in both instances incorrectly recording the picture as measuring 62 x 84 cm.).