1514 was a long time ago. 500 years to be exact. But in 1514 Albrecht Dürer created a masterwork that is still the object of speculation. Melencolia I is arguably one of the most famous prints in existence. This 18 by 24 copper engraving is jam packed with objects that peak our curiosity.
Some of the items that interested the fourth graders the most this week are the architectural and mathematical tools that surround the angel, the strange 4 by 4 square with numbers which add up to 34 in every direction…the mysterious solid shape with a ghostly skull that seems to ebb in and out of our vision…the hourglass, the scale, the very skinny animal…
We discussed this work of art in some classes for 45 minutes straight. My personal theory of an ancient treasure map, was met with excitement from some and strong argument from others. In Ms. Miller’s class, Conner reminded us of the Egyptian myths we learned in second grade. The hearts of the ancient egyptian dead were weighed against the feather of Maat on a scale much like the one depicted here. Julia pointed out the water of the background and made an argument that the whole image was set on a ship. Miles asked us to turn the whole image on its side and see how the orb becomes a doorknob and the planer becomes a lock, and suggested the keys on the angels belt could open the lock. Pow!!! Minds blown! A lot of really interesting and sound theories were put forth, and all were both respected while also being debated.
There are lots of viable answers. It doesn’t really matter what the answer to the mystery is. Scholars do not agree, we did not agree. What matters is that an artist 500 years ago put forth a visual challenge to viewers that still interests us today. In our fast paced digital age of 5 minute clips on youtube, it interests fourth graders enough to discuss it for 45 minutes. The debate from 1514 continues in 2014.
Art can do that. Artists can do that. We are all artists and we can all do that.