Remember when melancholy was more than just a mood? In the Middle Ages, it wasn’t as simple as having a bad day; it was a pathological, persistent state, the fault of the gods or the stars, an imbalance of humors. The landmark study Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, first published in 1964 but out of print for decades, looks at some 2000 years of thought about the mood and its defining god/planet going back to Aristotle, leading to a thorough examination of Albrecht Dürer’s 1521 engraving Melencolia I. It’s a heady read in a time that may call for distraction, but it’s a fascinating look at how humans have always looked to categorize humanity and make sense of their own fate by means that might seem arbitrary but contain great poetry and rich metaphor.

Yet this handsomely designed facsimile edition is an intimidating tome, dense with footnotes of primary sources left untranslated from Greek, Latin and other languages in which the general reader may not be fluent. (Fortunately, this edition includes a helpful appendix that translates the extensive quotations in the body of the text, but which still leaves dozens of footnoted quotations untranslated). But, albeit after hundreds of pages that barely sum up centuries of thought that can take a lifetime to parse, Erwin Panofsky provides some hope: “It is in fact the distinction of a great work of art, that whether it represents a bunch of asparagus or a subtle allegory it can, on one particular level, be understood by the naive observer and the scientific analyst alike.”

The quote refers to Dürer’s work, the intensely allegorical light at the end of this formidable tunnel. In its early sections, Saturn and Melancholy trace changing notions of melancholy from Aristotle, who wondered that all great men had in common a tendency to nurture the black dog called depression, through philosophers and artists through the centuries: Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen and John Milton are just a few of the brilliant minds that have pondered it, and the book takes us from theories of the four humors through medieval astrology and a dizzying array of sources that can easily become overwhelming.

This all leads to a definitive piece of art criticism that breaks down the elements of Dürer’s Melencolia I, which at its center depicts a woman resting her head in her hand, “surrounded by the instruments of creative work, but sadly brooding with a feeling that she is achieving nothing.” It’s an all-too familiar feeling, isn’t it? But this is far more than a brooding teacher, and the layers of symbols that surround her, from an emaciated-looking dog resting by her side to a mysterious polyhedron looming in front of her to a prominent table of seemingly random numbers; each of these elements is painstakingly addressed, with dozens of illustrations providing examples of their historical use before Dürer’s innovations.

It’s a lot to ponder, and much like Dürer’s allegorical masterpiece, Saturn and Melancholy is approachable on multiple levels. And while it may represents a world of scholarship that seems anathema to the modern era, its ideas are perennial. You could write a while book about Saturn, melancholy and music; there’s a reason Sun Ra claimed to be from the ringed planet; the same urges govern artists as disparate as Frank Sinatra and Ian Curtis. Even humorists know these conflicts too well; comics from W. C. Fields to Mel Brooks have stated that tragedy is comedy when it happens to somebody else, and Conan O’Brien once told an interviewer that the same mechanism that leads his brain to make unexpected—and hilarious—connections can lead him to terribly bleak ruminations. The book isn’t easy going; but what of any value is?

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One Comment

  1. Icarus

    July 18, 2020 at 11:06 am

    Nice review , Mr. Padua . I recently acquired this volume . I also recommend Born Under Saturn by Margot Wittkower and The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton . They are both published by NYRB :

    Be well , sir .


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