Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 15, 2018
Mitchell B. Merback Perfection's Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer's Melancolia I Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2018. 360 pp.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $32.95 (9781942130000)

Mitchell Merback’s latest book, Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, precisely does not reveal what the enigma of the master engraving is “about.” Rather, it reveals mystery itself as a sixteenth-century therapeutic practice. In so doing, the book provides insight into the endurance and pervasiveness of a lingering stereotype: that transformative wisdom lies concealed in old books, old paintings, and old diagrams from old Europe. This stereotype brings with it rich fantasies about coded riddles that mask transhistorical conspiracies. As Merback is aware, for he uses a fitting epigraph from Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol to kick off the first chapter, Melencolia I may be the best and most famous exemplar of old European image enigmas. It is legible, in that many of the major objects and figures are more or less recognizable; yet the assembly of these objects and figures eludes explanation. Why is a putto sitting on a sideways millstone? What would someone be measuring in their lap in an otherwise non-pornographic image? A perfect fix for conspiracy junkies, the engraving signals that it bears lore (core wisdom from a given community), yet withholds any clear, unambiguous meaning.

Merback’s reading of this image as a remedy for melancholy turns out itself to be a remedy for conspiracy theory. Crucially, rather than assigning the print’s details to a hidden cosmic plan, he acknowledges the image’s incompleteness as essential. Taking up studies of therapeutic images, including those by Frances Gage, Walter S. Melion, and, less recent, Pedro Laín-Entralgo, Merback creatively and judiciously applies their insights to older, once-groundbreaking readings and historical studies provided by Erwin Panofsky, particularly in his collaboration with Fritz Saxl and Raymond Klibansky on Saturn and Melancholy following the unfinished researches of Karl Giehlow. (One inspiring aspect of Perfection’s Therapy is Merback’s intellectual generosity in citing other scholars. This generosity not only proves incredibly thorough—given that the historiography of Melencolia I functions almost as a comprehensive census of Renaissance scholars—but also enhances the clarity of his own contributions.)

Merback identifies the print as a remedy that provides “efficacy by proxy”: what heals viewers is not the image itself, but the process of experiencing the image. Such an interpretation of the engraving as medicinal is historically plausible, given, for example, well-known talismanic remedies proposed by Marsilio Ficino a couple generations earlier in Florence. But Merback presents and historically grounds the image as a self-administered medical procedure with discrete, mutually complementary steps. These steps, addressed in the various chapters, include the establishment of narrative and potential transformation within the image’s iconography and composition (making it a module for self-transformation); the invocation of contemplative and consolatory visual and literary traditions; and the navigation of worldly destiny and communal caring and love under the auspices of ministering to the eternal soul of oneself and one’s fellows.

In establishing these steps and their efficacy in Melencolia I, much of the wide-ranging book covers long-durée histories of medicine, theology, and philosophy, rightly intermixed. However, Merback also rethinks other images of the period through a therapeutic framework. Impressively, not all his examples look like lore-bearing allegories. One standout is the account of Dürer’s previously under-analyzed 1522 Self-Portrait with Instruments of the Passion (195–204, with related analysis through 211). Merback’s use of concepts current in psychological therapeutic practice today—like “vigilance”—is gentle, subtle, and therefore powerful. Because he does not, say, overdraw a comparison to present-day studies of vigilance and its trendier cousin, hypervigilance, readers can hear the echo of the ethical attentiveness of a suffering Christian in present-day struggles with mental hygiene.

On a more strictly art historical level, Merback provides another satisfying account of Dürer’s repeated self-Christification. Along with and even more so than the 1500 Munich Self-Portrait, the 1522 Self-Portrait uses a lacuna to enact the therapeutic aspect perhaps always latent in imitatio Christi. The unfigurable wind that blows back Dürer’s hair here is that of fate itself, of fortune and misfortune, the force of a world a Christian, like the incarnate Christ, must endure. Merback quotes Ficino on the proper relation of a “provident man” to fortune at length: the best policy is to “make peace or a truce with Fortune, bending our wishes to her will and willingly going the way she directs, lest she drag us by force” (208). Whether or not one accepts Merback’s suggestion that the wind blowing Dürer’s locks back in the drawing truly comes from Fortuna-as-wind-goddess—or that aspects of passion-withstanding reason appear in the portrait of the vigilant self—Merback movingly reidentifies the tension between divine durability and worldly lability as a target of spiritual self-care.

I would like to turn to a canny misquotation, which I will lay out here, and which reveals another important side of Merback’s contribution. The authors of Saturn and Melancholy (1964), in a passage indebted to the work of Alfred W. O. von Martin, make a distinction between the “vita speculativa sive studiosa” and the “vita contemplativa sive monastica” (Kraus Reprint 1979, 245). In other words, these scholars distinguished between a “Renaissance” fantasy of a philosopher practicing “self-sufficient thought and research,” and a prototypical medieval monk practicing only God-driven contemplation. Rightly uninvested in this cliché of Renaissance-resuscitation of autonomous human individuality over God-centered medieval Christianity, and correctly describing Dürer’s life, Merback transmits instead “vita contemplativa sive studiosa” (74). He folds piety and scholarly inquiry together into his recipe for early modern remedy. In so doing, he readies his theory for application beyond Melencolia I to the general corpus of the visualized lore of Europe.

What is the difference between spiritual healing and the transmission of knowledge? In this case, little. Melancholy was particularly treatable by engagement with knowledge practices along the Petrarchan lines, Merback points out, of the philosopher as “animorum medicus,” soul doctor (175). But if we follow Petrarch’s De remediis, or any of its vernacular printed versions, which were well distributed in the early sixteenth century, this doctoring of the soul could minister to a broad array of afflictions.

This raises the question of which diagrammatic, didactic, allegorical, or otherwise lore-bearing images could serve as potential remedies for the soul. Noteworthy are the lacunae or incompletenesses that accompany most (though not all) of Merback’s key examples. Merback’s book leaves little doubt that the luscious ambiguity and open-endedness of the Melencolia I are essential to its narrative, procedural function.

However, in communities like those of premodern Europe, in which associative exegesis flowed well past present-day standards of relevance, some measure of the hermeneutic and experiential or phenomenological open-endedness Merback attributes to Melencolia I would have been present in images less rich. To be clear, I am not suggesting that dry diagrams of, say, Trees of Virtue, or even Lucas Cranach the Elder’s paintings of Melancholy—which can appear superficial and even garish compared to Dürer’s work—share all the qualities of Melencolia I. I am suggesting that it might be worth expanding on Merback’s throwaway assertion that “[e]ven the most strictly ‘didactic’ images    . . . participated in the cure of souls,” and thus “continued an ancient tradition of rhetorical healing” (94).

Along with reframing Dürer’s engraving, this book accounts for why so many are fascinated by European visualized wisdom. Merback is too sensitive a thinker to overemphasize Melencolia I’s kinship to contemporary technologies of self-help and self-healing. But one might speculate that a sense of remedy lingers, that contemplation of a mystery still offers the potential for self-improvement.

Conversely, art historians have tended to dismiss information-rich images in which meanings seem more plain. Joseph Koerner’s account in The Reformation of the Image of how a proliferation of captions anxiously deadens meaning in sixteenth-century Lutheran imagery is just one example. The only real overt defense of related allegorical modes has been Edgar Wind’s. In Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance, he famously attempted to argue, contra E. M. Forster, that a mystery image did not die, like the Sphinx, once someone solved its riddle. Rather, a great symbol became more alive through inhabiting its full meaning.

At last, Merback has articulated why the enigmatic image continues to fascinate: the experiential act of going through a mystery can heal people. Or at least some people have thought so in the past.

As Merback acknowledges, we cannot know whether anyone used the Melencolia I and other speculative-therapeutic images in the way he describes (109). Nevertheless, his heuristic can on the one hand explain why the lore of old Europe generates enduring demand for interpretation and on the other hand serve as a remedy for images we initiates often leave for dead.

Jennifer Nelson
Assistant Professor; Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago