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Federica Muré

 Images of discordance. Configurations of tension in Walter Benjamin’s reading of Dürer’s Melencolia I vis-à-vis Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl’s Melencolia ‘yet-to-come’


Looking at Dürer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I, this article investigates Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the image’s potential to act as a pivot for conflicting tendencies which do not settle in extra-mundane resolutions, vis-à-vis different attempts to harmonise the friction between finitude and transcendental cypher via moral revelation (Kant) and synthetic resolution (Panofsky and Saxl).

Taking the conclusive section of ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’ (in Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, written 1924-25, published 1928) as a main theoretical reference, this paper centres on Benjamin’s diagnosis of melancholy’s dialectics and the implications this yields for the recognition of the image’s potential to un-limit itself from the grips of intellectual representability and moral instruction.

By setting up a fruitful dialogue with Panofsky and Saxl’s advocacy of Melencolia’s ‘new meaning’, as well as with Warburg’s insights on the configurations of extremes which govern the melancholic, this article will offer a confrontation between Benjamin’s intra-image dialectics and the ideational meaning ascribed to the image by Panofsky and Saxl, whose interpretation hinges on the ultimate resolution of conflicts in a Melencolia yet-to-come.

The conclusive section will identify, in Benjamin’s diagnosis of melancholy’s – and the image’s – dialectics, a means to problematise one-directional and one-sided hermeneutics of the limits between the visual and the ideational, and between the contingency of the image’s representational surface and its gesturing towards a metaphysical exceeding.


Look when a painter would surpass the life,

In limning out a well-proportion’d steed,

His art with nature’s workmanship at strife,

As if the dead the living should exceed:

So did this horse excel a common one,

In shape, in courage, colour, pace and bone[1].                                                                                                      

Illuminare’ – to illuminate was what in Latin referred to the act of decorating medieval manuscripts by means of marginalia, or ornaments at the borders of the text. The term translated in English with the caption ‘limn’ which, since the early 15th century, also retained the additional meanings of ‘portraying’ in drawing or in words – to describe, to outline.

In the beautiful lines of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, one reads about the limning gesture of the artist when painting: the alluring motion of a brush traces the outline of a ‘well-proportioned steed’ and, by demarcating the limit of form, the artist’s gesture exceeds the living, it ‘surpasses’ life.

The knot at the core of the image’s paradox is to be found in the co-extensiveness of limitation – the outline, the limits of form – and exceeding, or the ‘surpassing’ of life – the image’s representational content beyond phenomenological bounds, which echoes in the ‘strife’ between the painter’s gesture and ‘nature’s workmanship’. Shakespeare’s allusion to the limning gesture vividly captures the tensional conjuncture of delimitation and un-limitation which art images, since time immemorial, invite us to attend.

Traces of the tension between the contingency of form and the metaphysical cypher of the image’s representational content were already evident in mythological accounts on the genesis of painting, and have frequently resurfaced in the history of philosophy and aesthetics.

The sediments of the friction between the traced outline and the excess of content appear in the lines written by Pliny the Elder on the origin of painting[2]: ‘The question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain […] but all [Greeks and Egyptians] agree that it began with tracing an outline round a man’s shadow’[3]. In his Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian also reiterates the myth: ‘there would be no painting but that of tracing the outlines of the shadow which bodies cast in the sunshine’[4].

This picture hints at the seam of contingency and metaphysics that is ontologically tied to the image’s surface, namely the tangible tracing of the outline and the impermanence of the content registered by the delimiting line: the trace of the body’s presence, or the shadow.

Looking beyond mythological accounts on the origin of painting, the tension between limited outline and exceeding content has been the object of a long-standing debate in the history of philosophy and aesthetics, which has culminated in the traditional opposition form-content, or hylē-morphē. But what Shakespeare had so vividly captured with the ‘limning’ gesture of the artist offers something more than dualistic opposition between the limit of the traced outline and the possibility of excess: co-existence.

Image is what visually appears at the juncture of presence and absence, as a phenomenological object of perception whose figuring nevertheless irritates the contingency of material presence. Structurally designed to inhabit a boundary-zone between seeing and thinking, the image cannot but respond to the logic of the limit, for which what delimits, in its delimit-action, also introduces the possibility of exceeding, right at the heart of delimitation[5].

The structural co-extensiveness of finitude and un-limitation makes the visual image one of the most promising and fertile terrains for the observation of tensional dynamics between the physical and the metaphysical, immanence and transcendence.

I Melancholy’s dialectics

The engraving depicts a winged woman as the allegory of melancholic disposition. She is sitting while holding a compass and she is surrounded by multiple objects - emblems of mathematical and geometrical knowledge, and carpenter tools -, such as a magic square, scales and a stone. There are also two other creatures, a sleeping dog and a putto. At the top left there is an inscription - ‘Melencolia I’ - and in the background a sky and sea are depicted.

Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia I,  1514, engraving, 240 millimetres x 189 millimetres (plate-mark), The British Museum, London. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Only towards the end of section II in Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels[6] does Benjamin touch upon the trait d’union between Dürer’s engraving and the aesthetic form of German tragic drama (Trauerspiel), the latter being, as is well-known, the seldom seen subject of his post-doctoral thesis: the images and figures that the German trauerspiel present – these are dedicated to Dürer’s genius of winged melancholy’[7].

In the theoretical trajectory which moves from the idea of fleeing beauty presented in the ‘Epistemo-Critical Foreword’ and culminates in the philosophical image of the Trauerspiel as beauty’s last day, the chapter on Dürer’s Melencolia I[8] serves to exemplify Benjamin’s basic manoeuvre, anticipating the method of ‘knowledge through immersion’[9] which will inform his writings on aesthetic experience from the mid-Twenties onwards: to educe the truth-contents at work in the profusion of images brought on stage by the German Trauerspiel from the representational surface of a specific visual image.

Drawing from a vast array of scholarship whose references include – but are not limited to – the work of Aby Warburg, Karl Giehlow, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Benjamin reads, in the image of melancholy, a constellation of dialectical tensions: between jovian and saturnine influences, the world’s finitude and other-worldly aspirations, mathematic-rational worldview and the world of things, Renaissance magic and Medieval acedia, genius and the demonic.

Dürer’s engraving had been the object of at least three important studies in the Germanophone cultural landscape at the dawnings of the Twentieth century, from Warburg’s 1905 lecture on Dürer at the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (Hamburg) – and the subsequent publication of the notable essay ‘Heidnische-Antike Weissagung in Wort und Bild zu Luthers Zeiten’ in 1920[10] – to Karl Giehlow’s three-part article ‘Dürers Stich ‘Melencolia I’ und der Maximilianische Humanistenkreis’ published between 1903 and 1904, up to Panofsky and Saxl’s monograph ‘Dürers Kupfertstich ‘Melencolia I’; Eine quellen – und typengeschichtliche Untersuchung’ (written 1920-21, published 1923), later included by Raymond Klibansky in the publication of the monumental Saturn and Melancoly: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art (1964).

In the conclusive section of the chapter ‘Trauerspiel and Tragedy’ (II, Trauerspiel-Buch), Benjamin explicitly pronounces his debt to the ‘beautiful study’ by Panofsky and Saxl, and to their ‘extraordinary critical model’[11], Karl Giehlow.

He also quotes more than once, as is well-known, from Warburg’s 1920 essay, in order to expose the influence of ‘Renaissance magic’[12] on the antique interpretation of melancholic disposition, for which saturnine tendencies are intertwined with a ‘theory of genius’[13], an interpretation which endows the image of melancholy with a dialectical tension, deprived of Hegelian Aufhebung (sublation).

A tension arises between demonic forces and divinatory powers, a conflict which Benjamin, detaching from Panofsky and Saxl’s attempt to harmonise the friction, reveals in its exacerbation. For Benjamin, the melancholic disposition gives up any extra-mundane redemptive possibility and stubbornly points to the immanent condition of the finite creature, rejecting any ideational aspiration that would resolve the conflicts between knowledge and imagination, divinatory and saturnine, immanence and transcendence, on a higher, intellectual plane.

This insight resonates with the work of German Baroque dramatists whose images and words, unlike the drama of fate developed by their Spanish counterparts, maintained the irresolute conflict between the transcendence of salvation and the immanency of the world’s finitude within, and not beyond, the realm of the creaturely.

Caught in the act of contemplating the world of things while being subject to the saturnine force which installs acedia, Dürer’s winged creature is, for Benjamin, haunted by the contradictory and irreducible tension between earthly finitude and intellectual aspirations. As is well known, Benjamin’s understanding of dialectics abjures the synthetic moment of resolution and sublation.

As early as 1918 he voiced his reservations about the ‘formalist dialectic of the post-Kantian systems’[14] in On the Program of the Coming Philosophy, where he also sketched an alternative structure for the dialectical which, by abandoning the hopes of ideational reconciliation, should lead toward ‘another relation between thesis and antithesis’[15].

In line with this insight, the dialectics diagnosed in Dürer’s image of melancholy, far from being the locus of reconciliation between opposing tendencies, signals the acme of tensional relations between different and intersecting polar facets.

The hallmark of the relation between contrasting tendencies is a motion of un-reconciliation and yet mutual affection between opposites, which exceeds any presence-absence divide: image is, in this sense, neither just immanence nor just transcendence but image is transcendence at the heart of immanence, death in life, past in the present[16].

Mutual affection and interpenetration, rather than mere separation, are the dynamics at stake in the image of melancholy: contrasting the medieval understanding of melancholy as one-sidedly ‘demonic’, Renaissance’s ennoblement of melancholy through a theory of genius offered a counter-movement to saturnine influences, thanks to which the melancholic disposition was ennobled by the astrological forces that act upon Saturn, namely jovian influences.

Benjamin cites approvingly of Giehlow’s insight on the dualistic character of Renaissance melancholy, reflected in the facial traits of the winged figure, described as bearing ‘saturnine features’ while expressing ‘divinatory concentration of the mind’[17].

Dürer’s image, for Benjamin, perfectly captures the conflict of demonic saturnine tendencies and jovian beneficent influences. In other words, Dürer’s visual representation of melancholy stages a coincidentia oppositorum[18]: the co-extensiveness of divinatory and saturnine forces, brought together under astrological influences, in a dialectical manoeuvre which problematises the medieval rendering of melancholy as uniquely demonic.

However, such intra-image co-extensiveness of opposites is not mere accordance or concurrence. Quite differently, the tensive moment staged by the image relies on the impossibility of assimilation, which allows opposing tendencies to show, via image, their fundamental incongruence.

Panofsky and Saxl already voiced the suspicion on the connection between Dürer’s engraving and ‘the astrological and humoral tradition of the Middle Ages’[19]. Against the backdrop of such tradition, the melancholic was indissociable from the ‘avaricious type’[20] and from aspirations to richness. ‘Even Kant’, Benjamin points out, ‘painted the picture of the melancholic with the colors in which it appears to the older theorists’[21].

In the Observations on the Feeling of Beautiful and Sublime, one of the most compelling descriptions of melancholy is marked by the contrast between the adjectives ‘noble’ and ‘dreadful’: ‘melancholy, a gentle and noble sentiment, to the extent that it is grounded in that dread which a restricted soul feels if, full of a great project, it sees the dangers that it has to withstand and has before its eyes the difficult but great triumph of self-overcoming’[22].

While this claim deceivingly appears to align with Benjamin’s diagnosis of the dialectical tension between demonic and beneficent tendencies underlying the feeling of melancholy, it will shortly be clear that Kant’s interpretation, in line with one-sided medieval theories of the melancholic disposition, hinges on the final moment of ‘self-overcoming’, whereby the conflicts of melancholy’s dialectics are eventually discarded via moral instruction.

The controversial interlacing of dreadful and noble sentiments also informs the Kantian distinction between different types of sublimity, one of which – the ‘terrifying sublime’ – is associated with dread and melancholy. To exemplify the ennoblement of melancholy – the feeling of a noble dread – Kant chooses a dream-image which leans on the ancient association between melancholy and the ‘avaricious type’.

He quotes several passages from the tale of Carazan’s dream[23], a rich merchant from Baghdad, whose account begins with a prophetic vision: ‘My fate had been cast for eternity’[24], recounts Carazan when describing the message delivered by the angel of death who visited him in his dreams.

His guilt – to have loved trivial goods more than humanity – is punished with expulsion from the heavens. His exclusion from communion of the creaturely leads him to the ‘most extreme limit of nature’ where other images appear: ‘the shadows of the boundless void sank into the abyss before me. A fearful realm of eternal silence, solitude and darkness! Unspeakable dread overcame me at this sight’[25].

The prophetic dream-image acts upon Carazan’s feeling in the manner of revelation, for which the ‘unspeakable dread’, arising from Carazan’s limit-position on the brink of the abyss, is redeemed and ennobled by a moral disposition: the dreadful image of the abyss elicits Carazan’s awakening and prompts his ‘ethical turn’, i.e. his self-overcoming.[26] The dreadful dream-image is nothing but the means for communicating a moral instruction which is to be concretised intra-experience: to ‘esteem human beings’[27].

In the picture painted by Kant, the transcendence of moral revelation finds in the dream-image the ideal setting for indirectly acting upon immanence, allowing transcendence to overstep its limits and to infiltrate intra-experience, via dream.

Such is the operation – influenced by the ancient tradition which reads the association between melancholy and divinatory powers through the device of prophetic dreams bearing the character of revelation – which favours the ennoblement of melancholy via moral instruction and reaches out towards self-overcoming, striving to conciliate the dialectical tension which instead would maintain both opposites – the noble and the dreadful – as co-extensive but not assimilable, without declaring the triumph of morality over the dreadful.

This detour via Kant’s Observations serves to reinforce Benjamin’s completely different angle  on the dialectics inherent in melancholic disposition, which informs the work of German Baroque dramatists. It is, in fact, by taking a different stance on the conflicting tensions between opposites – the creature and the moral, mourning [Trauer] and play [Spiel], finitude and infinity, immanency and transcendence – that Benjamin distinguishes between the ‘closed form’ of the Spanish drama of fate and the dialectical aspirations of the German Trauerspiel.

Despite showing artistic excellence and perfection, the Spanish drama of fate remained a ‘closed form’ subject to the Romantic ‘device of reflection’[28], for which a resolution of the conflict between immanency and transcendence is achieved by means of delimitation of the ‘unfathomable’ – ‘the introduction of a reflexive infinity of thought into the closed finitude of a profane space of fate’[29].

By contrast, German Baroque dramatists maintained their eyes on the finitude of the creaturely, and the images they brought on scene testify to the impossibility of eradicating the conflicting tension between the immanence of fate and other-worldly aspirations.

In line with this insight, melancholy’s redemption, for Benjamin, does not require the external intervention of moral revelation, quite oppositely, it is only with the acceptance of tension’s un-resolution within the bounds of finitude that the feeling of melancholy can be overcome.

It is now possible to further elucidate Benjamin’s claim on the trait d’union between the images of the German Trauerspiel and the image of Melencolia: Dürer’s ‘winged figure’ stages an intricate texture of conflicts deprived of a transcendental resolution, an insight which echoes in the Baroque rejection of eschatology.

By means of comparison with the geomantic immersion in the finitude of the creaturely, staged in the Trauerspiel’s dream-images, melancholy’s gaze plunges into the depths of the world’s finitude, and her capacity to seize upon dead objects dismantles the presumed supremacy of abstract thinking, expressing instead a stubborn ‘fidelity to the world of things’[30].

Not dissimilarly from Panofsky and Saxl, Benjamin’s reading of Dürer’s Melencolia emphasises the ‘unparallel interpretative genius’ of Renaissance which ‘first read the imposing dialectic’[31] embedded in the emblems which are associated with the melancholic.

But if, as will be shortly demonstrated, Panofsky and Saxl’s interpretation hinges on the possibility of synthetic resolution between the tension of ‘‘ratio’ and ‘non-ratio’’[32], and between visual images and interior images – Platonic ideas – in the higher plane of the work’s ideation, i.e in the idea, or the ‘new meaning’ signified by the image, Benjamin rejects the possibility of subjecting the image’s conflicts to the ruling of an ideational cypher.

By reading the melancholic through the prism of a dialectics inherent in the image’s representational surface and not directed towards extra-image aspirations, Benjamin moves closer to Aby Warburg’s advocacy of antique melancholy’s redemption via Dürer’s ‘humanistic’ Melencolia. Warburg’s reading of melancholy, it should be noted, differs from Benjamin’s: for Warburg, the melancholic type is mostly heroic, it is ‘the noblest type, and excels in virtues of every kind; for it is governed by a tempered mixture and arises from a favourable position of the planets’[33].

The mediation between the excesses of the mythical-magic influences and rational insight staged by melancholic disposition is, for him, the site of a ‘truly creative act’ and one which ‘gives Dürer’s Melencolia its consoling, humanistic message of liberation from the fear of Saturn’[34].

The limits of the negative drives embedded in antique interpretations of melancholy are thus overcome with the recasting of the melancholic, through humanistic influences, in a balanced composure of magic and logic extremes, a harmonisation of polar opposites, which Dürer’s pensive figure embodies.

While Warburg’s reading of Dürer’s creature presses on the ultimate balancing act of rational forces over astrological temperaments, he nevertheless shares with Benjamin the intuition that melancholy’s reversal, or redemption, takes place within the bounds of immanence and, consequently, within the image’s surface.

And this overflowing of melancholy’s limits intra-image, albeit in the different directions of unresolved conflict and balanced composure, coincides, for both, with Dürer’s great achievement.

II The intolerable limitations of visual immanence: Panofsky and Saxl’s Melencolia yet-to-come

If one can safely argue that Benjamin’s interpretation of Dürer’s Melencolia I presses on the image’s potential to act as a pivot for conflicting tendencies without possibility of resolution, then such emphasis on dialectical un-reconciliation inevitably detaches from the Neo-Kantian tone adopted by Panofsky and Saxl, whose reading of melancholy is seemingly filtered through Ernst Cassirer’s theory of the symbolic:

‘Dürer’s engraving is the image of an abstract and impersonal notion symbolised in a human figure […] the visible representation completely answers to the invisible notion’[35].

According to Panofsky and Saxl, Dürer’s image achieves the ‘dignity of the symbol’[36], or what Cassirer, lecturing in Hamburg during the same years, had defined as the potential – inherent in symbolic forms – to reduce the particularity of contingency to a refracted image of an ideational totality which encompasses the visible and yet extends beyond such realm[37].

In its being ‘limited’ or ‘self-contained’, the image answers to, i.e. is subject to, the ruling of an invisible, abstract ‘notion’. Instead of endorsing the unsolved character of the dialectical tensions between immanence and transcendence, Panofsky and Saxl identify Dürer’s achievement with a capacity for synthesis between the visible – the world’s finitude – and intellectual aspirations lying beyond the bounds of contingency[38].

Despite the advocacy of synthesis against indecision and irresolution, Panofsky and Saxl certainly did not fail to notice the underlying tension pervading Melencolia I, namely the constellation of conflicting tendencies between knowledge and imagination, practical gestures and intellectual activity, saturnine and jovian influences, Melencolia Imaginativa and the Typus Geometriae.

But it is their overindulging on the negative connotation of the limits of immanence and the creature – as well as a prominent emphasis on symbolic synthesis over dialectical un-resolution -, for which Dürer’s pensive figure is read through the prism of inadequacy, or failure to attain an idealistic cypher beyond the limits of the image, the main distinctive feature which separates them from Benjamin’s interpretation.

Panofsky and Saxl identify a tensional knot between the two iconographic models underlying Dürer’s engraving, namely the Typus Acedia – melancholy’s inactivity and the Typus Geometria, which was a representational motif of geometry exemplified by a woodcut from Georg Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica (1504), one of the most popular encyclopaedias of the Sixteenth century.

The image depicts a personification of geometry as a woman seated at a desk who is engaging with measuring instruments, such as a compass and rulers. On her right hand side, there are two figures also engaging with the act of measuring. There is an inscription in the background, however the text is not clearly readable. At the bottom of the image, there are three men depicted in the act of construction, surrounded by architectural parts and carpenter tools, including a hammer.

Geometry, ca. 1504, woodcut from George Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The woodcut from George Reisch’s Margarita philosophica establishes clear visual limits between the intellectual notion of pure geometry, whose personification is a woman sitting at the table surrounded by tools, and the practical handwork of the constructors, depicted at the bottom of the image.

As Panofsky and Saxl pointedly note, ‘in an intellectual sense the activities shown here [in the bottom section] are ‘subordinated’ to ‘Geometria’; for all the work that is going on is merely a practical reflection of her theoretical discoveries’[39].

The assumption of a clear-cut separation between intellectual activity and practical work became a popular trope since Renaissance. Not only is this idea visually conveyed in the portraits of geometry but it also extends to other forms of art, such as architecture.

In this cultural milieu, the origin of architecture is indeed recounted as another ‘separating act’ – between the stone cutter (Alberti’s ‘carpenter’) and the profession of the architect. Such divide replicates a further separation between the ‘practical’ – the handwork, the act of construction – and the epistemological space where the thinking of construction originates, embodied by the intellectual agency of the architect.

It was disegno [drawing] that should have retained the function of ‘bridging’ the worker and the architect, or practice and knowledge. Instead, the theory of architecture and the invention of perspective forged in Renaissance and shaped in the lines written by Alberti in De re Aedificatoria and De Pictura maintained a certain purity and sovereignty of intellectual thinking over visual representability and three-dimensional ‘constructability’.

More precisely, the image-surface was to be conceived only as a function of the representability of thought – the limits of the image were sealed by the rule of a pure space of intelligibility. As a consequence, drawing sets itself as a ‘third’ space of idealistic removal, independent from both the hand of the carpenter and the architect’s agency[40].

Figurative and architectural construction were not only subordinated to the thinking act but also problematically severed from the epistemological space of the work’s ideation.Such divide is visually reflected in the portrait of Geometria, with the clear separation between the higher plane of ideation and the lower, subordinate activity of construction.

Against this backdrop, the novelty of Dürer’s visual references to the ‘Typus geometriae’ in his Melencolia becomes clearer: the problematisation of the idea of fixed limits – and, therefore, of separation – between intellectual ideation and practice. This why the Typus Acedia enters into the scene, in order to introduce a tensional, confrontational moment in face of the one-sided, conceptual hegemony of a pure mathematical worldview.

The fidelity in the supremacy of intelligible activity is now challenged by a stubborn opponent, namely astrological influences under saturnine and jovian jurisdictions. The revision of the Typus Geometriae in light of the encounter with saturnine influences and divinatory forces gives rise to Dürer’s winged figure. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Dürer’s creature ‘is doing nothing’ with the instruments scattered around her.

She is not engaged in construction and she fails to ‘employ things’[41], but these ‘things’, or objects, are no longer uniquely tied to the figural motifs that determined the classical activity of the geometer through the act of measuring – the compass being one of the elements of geometrical ‘activity’ par excellence. They now also reflect their affinity with saturnine influences, as Panofsky and Saxl rightly point out:

Thus we can see that most of those occupational symbols whose presence in Dürer’s engraving Melencolia has hitherto seemed explicable only in terms of “the art of measurement” find a place also in the world of Saturn; for in so far as they are practical and manual, the trades represented in Dürer’s engraving belong not only to that group which we have seen illustrated in the woodcut of “Geometria” in the Margarita philosophica, but also to that which the writings on the planets label the “artificia Saturni”: namely, the trades of the “carpentarius”, the “lapicida”, the “cementarius”, the “edificator edificiorum’’’[42]

While Panofsky and Saxl limit themselves to the recognition of polarities within the emblems, Benjamin, by contrast, captures a specific liminal hesitation or oscillation between extremes, the motion of an overflowing of limits between the self-limited and intelligible realm of Geometria and the three-dimensional ‘constructability’ staged by the artificia Saturni[43]. This shifting gesture defies the supposed abstractness of (Cartesian) mathematical and geometrical space, which wants to eradicate practice  – ‘construction’ – from the regional limits of intelligibility.

While holding the compass, the winged creature does not engage with it – her gaze is not concentrated on the act of measuring. Her contemplative gesture belongs to register of feeling: she feels apathetic while striving to think, or to contemplate, and here lies Dürer’s exceptional synthesis, according to Panofsky and Saxl, the ‘merging of the two different worlds of thought and feeling’ or the ‘ars geometrica’ with the ‘homo melancholicus’[44] .

If Benjamin reads Dürer’s melancholic creature as ruled by acedia, Panofsky and Saxl clarify that Melencolia’s inactivity arises from her preoccupation with ‘interior visions’[45], that is, with intellectual striving, rather than earthly contemplation, hence why she disregards the practical tools.

And, while Benjamin significantly endows melancholy’s ‘activity’ with an epistemological function – albeit one that is not instrumental to the scientific worldview but which is instead grounded on the salvific contemplation of ‘dead things’[46] – Panofsky and Saxl’s interpretation hinges on the rigid de-limitations between visible and invisible and places the significance of melancholy in her failure to overcome the limits of visual contingency, enacting the struggle of thought to access a universal, invisible space of idealistic removal.

In other words, Panofsky and Saxl read the insurgence of melancholy as a failure to grasp ‘that’ which lies beyond the visible – beyond the image – and implicitly condemn Dürer’s figure to the chains of visual immanence.

According to this reading, the image – rather than staging an overflowing of limits – symbolically portrays a limit-point which cannot be transgressed within the surface of the image-space, but can only be overcome by abdicating the visible world surrounding her. Thus, the significance of Melencolia I, her ‘true meaning’, corresponds to an ‘imaginative Melancholy, whose thoughts and actions all take place within the realms of space and visibility […] we receive the impression of a being to whom her allotted realm seems intolerably restricted – of a being whose thoughts ‘have reached the limit’’[47] .

The intolerable limitations of visual immanence: this is the melancholic moment glimpsed by Dürer, according to Panofsky and Saxl, who classify this temporal occurrence as the ‘first stage’ of an ascending motion which was bound to eventually enable a transition from the limits of ‘melancholia imaginativa’ through to the consequent step, coinciding with ‘melancholia rationalis’, up to the final stage of the ascent, namely ‘melancholia mentalis’.

Leaning on Agrippa’s theory of gradation, as it appears in his De occulta philosophia, for which the melancholic disposition is inscribed into a threefold ascending process, which corresponds to the stages of ‘imaginatio’ (I) – mechanical arts -, ‘ratio’ (II) – ‘knowledge of natural and human things’ – and ultimately reaches the ‘higher spirits’ (III) – ‘knowledge of divine secrets’ (SM: 359), Panofsky and Saxl identify Melencolia I with the very first stage of such ascending motion.

This assimilation has far-reaching implications for their central assertion on the significance of Dürer’s engraving, namely the portrait of melancholy as a being confined within her own limits, a being who has accepted that mathematical or rational insight falls short of the higher mental faculties required to transcend the limits of the physical world – a power which was not a prerogative of pure geometry or mathematics, i.e. rational knowledge, but of individual genius.

The significance of Dürer’s achievement is, for Panofsky and Saxl, rooted in the recognition that the limits of visual immanence must still be overstepped, tensions between visual immanence and invisible, interior images must still be resolved, only now it is a matter of different intellectual strategies – the shift from calculating ratio to the ‘higher mental power’ of genius.

The fruitful revaluation of melancholy which took place in Reinassance, via Ficino’s De vita and then re-elaborated in Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia, was grounded on the Pseudo-Aristoteles Problemata, XXX,1 which established a kinship between the melancholic disposition and ‘exceptional men’ – artists, literates, philosophers. Melancholy was read, under this redeemed light, as a state of ‘excess’.

The first version of Agrippa’s text was considered to be, according to Panofsky and Saxl’s philological excavation, the main theoretical source of Dürer’s Melencolia. But while there is strong agreement on Dürer’s acquaintance with Ficino’s texts and Agrippa’s subsequent revision in De occulta, it is certainly plausible to think, as Bertozzi has suggested[48], that Dürer might not have followed Agrippa’s text to the letter, and that he may have not subscribed to the threefold movement of melancholy’s ascent.

It is perhaps equally plausible to assume that Dürer, as an artist, was more faithful to the Problemata’s insight on the association between melancholy and the artist’s ‘exceptional status’ and that his portrait of melancholy, rather than staging the limitations and inadequacy of a being confined to the visual realm, hinted at the exceptional status of the artist, the genius, who observes the world from his exceeding qua melancholic position.

It is remarkable, in this sense, that when discussing the significance of Dürer’s Melencolia I, the ‘new meaning’ of Dürer’s engraving is placed extra-image, in a Melencolia yet-to-come: ‘Dürer’s Melencolia I, as portraying a ‘melancholia imaginativa’, would really represent the first stage in an ascent via Melencolia II (‘melancholia rationalis’) to Melencolia III (‘Melancholia mentalis’)’[49] . Here lies Giehlow’s error, according to Panofsky and Saxl, namely the failure to recognise the significance of Agrippa’s theory of gradation in the numerical ordering of the three stages of ascent.

Thus, even though Melencolia I stages the limits of mathematical-scientific knowledge, the ‘overcoming’ – but not the overflowing – of such limits is announced, by Panofsky and Saxl, in a subsequent, hypothetical intervention of ‘higher faculties’[50] of the mind which take us beyond the frontiers of the image, in ascension toward a universal, ideational space.

Seen under this Neo-Kantian light, Dürer’s melancholy, for Panofsky and Saxl, coincides with the sorrowful failure of imagination to reconcile the tensions between the world’s finitude and other-worldly, intellectual aspirations. Rather than pondering on the unsolved coincidentia oppositorum staged by the image, the ‘new meaning’ promoted by Panofsky and Saxl looks forward to the resolution of opposites – and to the departure from earthly finitude – in the higher, idealistic realm of a third image (Melencolia III) yet-to-come.

III Conclusion

It is now evident that, despite Benjamin’s enthusiasm for Panofsky and Saxl’s meticulous excavation of the theoretical and iconographical influences condensed in Dürer’s image, his emphasis on dialectical un-resolution detaches his reading from the Neo-Kantian precepts underpinning Panofsky and Saxl’s exegesis. Benjamin’s distancing from the advocacy of an idealistic reconciliation extra-image moves him closer to Warburg’s insights on the possibility to redeem the limits of melancholy within the bounds of visual representation.

From the world of things, there is no escape towards a universal realm beyond its limits. Benjamin sees, in the figure of the stone, the signs of medieval acedia, the syndrome of ‘indolence of the heart’[51] which plunges the subject into a fall ‘in terror’. Yet redemption is possible within the limits of this world, thus, within the limits of image, where such limits are the site of a transformative, allegorical potentiality: ‘Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge.

But its persevering absorption takes the dead things up into its contemplation in order to save them’[52]. The persevering absorption into dead things is nothing but the genius of the allegorist – and the brooder –  who sees the content of ‘dead things’ as the presentational limit-form of redemption within and not beyond earthly finitude, moving away from the ideational leap signified by Melencolia’s ‘new meaning’ (Panofsky and Saxl).

The image stages a dialectics that cannot find its ‘solution’ beyond the frontiers of the representational surface but only within its own dynamism, which is, as such, the dynamism of the frontier – the limit’s potential to overshoot itself.

Looking retrospectively at Shakespeare’s allusion to the limning gesture at the heart of artistic creation, with its interlacing of limitation and un-limitation, it is now possible to conclude that Benjamin, partially siding with Warburg, captures, in Dürer’s Melencolia I, the structural affiliation between the image and the frontier:

against the static posture which sees the image as an object condemned to the limits of intellectual representability, Benjamin seizes the dynamism of the frontier, the locus of an irreducible tension between excess – the limit’s potential to overshoot itself – and delimitation, or the image’s stubborn availability to the senses.

Benjamin’s recognition of the image’s potential to un-limit itself from the grips of intellectual representability resonates with the irresolute tension of Kantian reminiscence between phenomena and Realität Noumenon.

If Panofsky and Saxl’s inclination towards sublimation and synthesis in their reading of Melencolia is fuelled by Neo-Kantian aspirations to finally seal the gap between the sensible and the intelligible, Benjamin’s insistence on dialectical tension is deeply rooted in a long-standing confrontation with Kantian philosophy, specifically on the controversial logic of the limit underpinning the third Critique, i.e. the necessity of transition between the limits of aesthetics and teleology, and between man’s purpose in the natural order and the transcendental ground of his freedom.

If, in a nutshell, one of the main challenges of Kant’s third Critique was to demonstrate the solemn composure and unsusceptibility of the limit while declaring its own trespassing and exceeding – the notable ‘leap’ from ‘sensible charm to the habitual moral interest’[53] – Benjamin takes the irresolute tension between contingency and the transcendental to the apex.

In line with this mandate, the image, far from being a springboard towards moral purposes (Kant) or ideational resolution (Panofsky, Saxl and Cassirer), is the most vivid disturbance of one-sided hermeneutics of the limit, the most promising instance of tension’s unsettling endurance.


Agamben, Giorgio, ‘Nymphs’ in Releasing ed. by Jacques Khalip and Robert Mitchell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) pp. 60-80

Barale, Alice, La malinconia dell’immagine (Firenze: Firenze University Press, 2019)

_____, «Collectione et quasi compressione»: Warburg e Benjamin in dialogo con Panofsky e Saxl’, Schifanoia, 48-49 (2015), 87-94

Benjamin, Walter, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. by Howard Eiland (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2019)

_____, Selected Writings, ed. by Michael W. Jennings and others, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996-2003), vol. I (1996, reprint. 2002)

_____, The Arcades Project, trans. by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press, 1999)

Bertozzi, Marco Il detective melancolico (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2008)

Cassirer, Ernst, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. by Ralph Manheim, 3 vols (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1955-1957), vol. I (1955, reprint. 1980)

Hanssen, Beatrice, ‘Portrait of Melancholy (Benjamin, Warburg, Panofsky)’, MLN, 114 no. 5 (1999), 991-1013, <>

Kant, Immanuel Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

_____, Observations on the Feeling of Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, ed. by Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Milbansky, Raimond, Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy. Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art, (London: Nelson, 1964)

McLaughlin, Kevin, ‘Ur-ability: force and image from Kant to Benjamin’ in Releasing the Image: From Literature to New Media, ed. by Jacques Khalip and Robert Mitchell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) pp. 204-221

Melanchthon, Philipp, Liber De Anima (Wittenberg: [S.n.], 1548)

Meld Schell, Susan, Kant and the Limits of Autonomy, (Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2009)

Murphy, James J. and Cleve Wiese, eds., Quintilian. On the Teaching of Speaking and Writing. Translations from books One, Two and Ten of the Institutio Oratoria, 2nd edn (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016)

Nägele, Rainer, ‘Thinking Images’ in Benjamin’s Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory ed. by Gerhard Richter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 23-41

Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Sense of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)

Ng, Julia, ‘Descartes’ Instrument: Geometrischer Raum un die Verschmitztheit militärischer Architekturdarstellungen’, in Goof History. Fehler machen Geschichte (Böhlau Velrlag GmbH & Cie, Köln, Weimar, Wien, 2009)

Proudfoot, Richard, and others, eds., The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2011)

Rackham, Harris, ed., Pliny. Natural History, 10 vols. (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP and William Heinemann LTD, 1938-1963), vol. IX (1952, reprint. 1961)

Rosenblum, Robert, ‘The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism’, The Art Bulletin 39 no. 4 (1957), 279-290 <>

Sohm, Philip ‘Dürer’s ‘Melencolia I’: The Limits of Knowledge’, Studies in the History of Art, 9, (1980), 13-32, <>

Warburg, Aby, ‘Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images’, in The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, trans. by D. Britt (Los Angeles, Calif.: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities; Garsington: Windsor [distributor], 1999)

Weber, Samuel, Benjamin’s -abilities (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2008)

Wedepohl, Claudia ‘Warburg, Saxl, Panofsky and Dürer’s Melencolia I’, Schifanoia, 48-49 (2015), 27-44

Weigel, Sigrid, Walter Benjamin. Images, the Creaturely and the Holy (Stanford: Stanford University Press)


[1] The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, ed by. Richard Proudfoot and others (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2011) p. 53

[2] See Robert Rosenblum ‘The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism’, The Art Bulletin 39 no. 4 (1957), 279-290, <>

[3] Pliny. Natural History, ed. by Harris Rackham, 10 vols. (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP and William Heinemann LTD, 1938-1963), vol. IX (1952, reprint. 1961) p. 271

[4] Quintilian. On the Teaching of Speaking and Writing. Trans. from books One, Two and Ten of the Institutio Oratoria, ed. by James J. Murphy and Cleve Wiese, 2nd edn (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), p. 133

[5] See Jean-Luc Nancy, The Sense of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 40

[6] References are to this English translation: Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. by Howard Eiland (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2019), hereafter abbreviated to Origin

[7] Origin, 164

[8] On Benjamin’s, Warburg’s, Panofsky and Saxl’s different interpretations of Melencolia I see Beatrice Hanssen, ‘Portrait of Melancholy (Benjamin, Warburg, Panofsky)’, MLN, 114 no. 5 (1999), 991-1013, <>; Claudia Wedepohl, ‘Warburg, Saxl, Panofsky and Dürer’s Melencolia I’, Schifanoia, 48-49 (2015), 27-44; Alice Barale, «Collectione et quasi compressione»: Warburg e Benjamin in dialogo con Panofsky e Saxl’, Schifanoia, 48-49 (2015), 87-94; ____, La malinconia dell’immagine (Firenze: University Press, 2019); Sigrid Weigel, Walter Benjamin. Images, the Creaturely and the Holy (Stanford: Stanford University Press) esp. pp. 207-211

[9] Beatrice Hanssen, ‘Portrait of Melancholy (Benjamin, Warburg, Panofsky)’, MLN, 114 no. 5 (1999), 991-1013, p. 1001 <> hereafter abbreviated to Portrait

[10] References are to this English translation: Aby Warburg, ‘Pagan-Antique Prophecy in Words and Images’, in The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, trans. by D. Britt (Los Angeles, Calif.: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities; Garsington: Windsor [distributor], 1999) pp. 597-699, hereafter abbreviated to The Renewal

[11] Origin, 153

[12] Ibid., 154

[13] Ibid., 155

[14] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. by Michael W. Jennings and others, 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996-2003), vol. I (1996, reprint. 2002) p. 106, Hereafter abbreviated to


[15] SW I, 106

[16] On similar interpretations of Benjamin’s Bild – image – as a boundary-zone of intersection between opposite tendencies see Rainer Nägele ‘Thinking Images’ in Benjamin’s Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory ed. by Gerhard Richter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 23-41, p. 39; Kevin McLaughlin ‘Ur-ability: force and image from Kant to Benjamin’ in Releasing the Image: From Literature to New Media, ed. by Jacques Khalip and Robert Mitchell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) pp. 204-221.; Giorgio Agamben ‘Nymphs’ in Releasing ed. by Jacques Khalip and Robert Mitchell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011) pp. 60-80; Samuel Weber Benjamin’s -abilities (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 49

[17] Origin, 156

[18] On Dürer’s Melencolia as coincidentia oppositorum see Philip Sohm, ‘Dürer’s ‘Melencolia I’: The Limits of Knowledge’, Studies in the History of Art, 9, (1980), 13-32, <>

[19] Raymond Kilbansky, with Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy. Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art, (London: Nelson, 1964), p. 284, hereafter abbreviated to Saturn

[20] Saturn, 284

[21] Origin, 151

[22] Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, ed. by Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) p. 26, hereafter abbreviated to Observations

[23] ‘I will only provide an example of the noble dread which the description of a total solitude can inspire, and to this end I will extract several passages from Carazan’s dream in the Bremen Magazine, Volume IV page 539’ (Observations: 17)

[24] Observations, 17

[25] Ibid.

[26] On Kant’s references to Carazan’s dream as reflecting his ethical turn, see Susan Meld Schell, Kant and the Limits of Autonomy, (Cambridge, Mass. and London, England: Harvard University Press, 2009)

[27] Observations, 17

[28] Origin, 70

[29] Ibid., 71

[30] Ibid., 162

[31] Ibid., 156

[32] Saturn, 361

[33] Melanchthon, Philipp Liber De Anima (Wittenberg: [S.n.], 1548), fol. 82r quoted in The Renewal, 644

[34] The Renewal, 644

[35] Saturn, 304, emphasis mine.

[36] Ibid., 306

[37]After accepting the philosophy chair at the University of Hamburg in 1919, Cassirer entered the Warburgkreis and initiated a period of close collaboration with Erwin Panofsky and Edgar Wind. According to the philosophy expounded in his trilogy on symbolic forms (composed between 1923-1929), Cassirer maintains the image is only a moderator between the region of an always pre-figured, or pre-formed, finitude and a spiritual infinitude which contains it and regulates it. The particularity of form is ‘possible only as limitation of all-encompassing ‘unitary space’, he writes in the

opening volume of his trilogy on symbolic forms: Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. by Ralph Manheim, 3 vols (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1955-1957), vol. I (1955, reprint. 1980), p. 239 – hereafter abbreviated to Philosophy I. In line with this presupposition, language is understood as a constitutive unity, ‘an organism in which, as the old Aristotelian definition put it, the whole is prior to its parts’ (Philosophy I, 304). In other words, the particular can only be a refracted image of an ideational, systematic totality which encompasses the phenomenal: ‘The authentic and essential life of the pure idea comes to us only when phenomena ‘stain the white radiance of eternity’. We can arrive at the at a system of manifold manifestations of the mind only by pursuing the different directions taken by its original imaginative power. In them we can see reflected the essential nature of the human spirit’ (Philosophy I, 88)

[38] See Saturn, 305-6

[39] Saturn, 313

[40] See Julia Ng, ‘Descartes’ Instrument: Geometrischer Raum un die Verschmitztheit militärischer Architekturdarstellungen’, in Goof History. Fehler machen Geschichte (Böhlau Velrlag GmbH & Cie, Köln, Weimar, Wien, 2009) pp. 181-202, where she draws an insightful parallel between the mathematical, a-historical space of drawing, dissociated from both architect and stone-cutter, with the paradox of ‘der ‘karterische’ raum’ (‘Cartesian’ space), or the locus of a ‘geometrisch intelligibel’ (intelligibly geometrical) which, despite its ideational cipher, cannot let go of the fundamental concern with the practical, namely ‘die Konstruierbarkeit einer geometrischen Figur’ (constructability of a geometric figure). In other words, with the constructive act embedded in representation and denied by the cartesian, mathematical space of drawing.

[41] Saturn, 306

[42] Ibid., 332

[43] Hanssen distinguishes between Panofsky and Saxl’s dualistic interpretation of melancholy as a ‘state dominated by polarities or extremitas’ and Benjamin’s recognition of ‘melancholic ambivalence’ which transforms conflicting tendencies into the ‘transitional moments of a dialectical logic’ (Portrait, 1002)

[44] Saturn, 317

[45] Ibid., 318

[46] See Portrait, 1004

[47] Saturn, 245

[48] See Marco Bertozzi, Il Detective Melancolico (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2008) esp. Ch. 4 pp. 53-63 and Ch. 6 pp. 84-93

[49] Saturn, 350

[50] Ibid., 360

[51] Origin, 160

[52] Ibid., 162

[53] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 228


Federica Muré is a doctoral candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London, in the department of English and Creative Writing. Her research focuses on the relation between different textures of the image and the concepts of the ‘frontier’ (Grenze) and the ‘threshold’ (Schwelle) in Benjamin’s writings, vis-à-vis Aby Warburg’s and Georges Didi-Huberman’s species of the image-limit. She is a graduate affiliate at the Centre for Philosophy and Critical Thought (Goldsmiths), where she co-organized the international workshop ‘Benjamin’s Baudelaire: Constellations of Modernity’ and the screening event ‘Berlin Childhood around 1900: A Film Project in Progress’ (both in 2019). In 2020, she co-founded, with three other doctoral candidates, the ‘Walter Benjamin Research Collective’ (WBRC), a virtual platform which encourages intellectual exchange amongst researchers working on different aspects of Benjamin’s extensive body of work.