The Magic Square and Ladder in Melencolia l by Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), in his 1514 engraving entitled Melencolia I, proves that indeed, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. Filled with alchemical and mystical objects, a viewer could become lost in the forest of meanings. Each item holds numerous layers of interpretation and I certainly won’t even begin to imply I understand all it conveys. I am happy to wonder.
Thinking back to the sentence; “As a rough and unfinished block, man is taken from the quarry and by the secret culture of the Mysteries is gradually transformed into a trued and perfect pyramidal capstone,” which is written in the Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall, and shared in The Missing Capstone, I can’t help but wonder if this offers a connection to the prominently displayed stone in Durer’s image. This assumed truncated rhombohedron sits beside the grindstone and at the base of the ladder.
The ladder has often signified stages of intellectual growth and spiritual enlightenment. It is a symbol of progress with the rungs marking the various levels. It represents a climb, one step at a time, with each rung providing support to reach another, yet higher, understanding. Could the stone, already beginning to be shaped, and positioned at the bottom rung, indicate wisdom starts with knowing one must make the effort to climb? Upon moving up the rungs, man discovers, learns, and gains insight. The rough stone (by progressing up the ladder), is transformed into a more perfect shape; like the capstone mentioned by Hall.
Interestingly, in between the third and fourth rungs of the ladder is depicted a cluster of buildings in Albrecht’s image. Since there are seven liberal arts which are divided by the first three, the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), and then with the last four, the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy/astrology), could this group of buildings portray a university? Is a suggestion being made that higher learning begins at the joining of the 3rd and 4th rung which may represent the Trivium and Quadrivium?
This linking of 3 and 4 can relate to the order of 3 and 4 Magic Squares; of which one is displayed in the upright corner of Durer’s masterful work. Magic squares are numerical grids in which the sum of any row, column, or diagonal equals the same number. Grids with these properties are considered to have Divine powers and qualities ascribed to them. In the case of Durer’s square, the magic constant is 34. It is a fantastic example of a square portraying mystical meaning. Not only does every row, column, and diagonal equal the magical sum of 34, so do the four corners (making it a gnomon square). The center quadrant, the same cell from each quadrant, shape of the cross points, bottom half of a quadrant with the same above/below, and the diagonals of a quadrant with the opposite cells, all add to 34 as well.
Durer may have wanted a viewer to connect the structure found within the ladder’s 3 and 4 rungs to the magical summed 34 square. Both can characterize learning. But there is another, more significant way, the square connects. Agrippa (1486-1535) assigned planets, and their attributes, to magic squares. Durer’s order of 4 square (4×4) relates to Jupiter and its trait of concord. Many researchers have suggested that Durer’s square offers a balanced solution to the engraving’s discord atmosphere.
Most notably illustrating the depressed atmosphere in Durer’s scene is the winged being sitting beneath the square. In a frustrated posture, she is believed to be the personification of Melancholy. Assumed to be saddened by defeat for understanding, albeit momentary, she rests her head on her hand. This position was also used by Moretto da Brescia in Portrait of a Young Man and expresses the temporary feelings for both head in hand individuals. Written under the man’s cap in the Portrait of a Young Man is, “Alas, I desire too much.”
In keeping with Agrippa’s attributes of the squares (believed to be Durer’s source), it is the order of 3 square (3×3) which can demonstrate disharmony and melancholy. It is assigned to the planet Saturn and base element lead. Although not shown, its traits are obvious in Durer’s scene and he clearly wanted to demonstrate it.
Amazingly, the cure for Melancholy’s disposition can be revealed to her, if she only changes her gaze in the opposite direction. If she turns around, in front of her would be the visibly present order of 4 square. Providing harmony to the characteristics of the order of 3 square, the order of 4 square offers the solution. The importance of the joining of the 3rd with the 4th is again alluded to. A balance or contentment can be found by uniting both. Two opposite squares, balanced together, to convey a meaning which lifts one’s soul.
To go back to the ladder, it would seem a school of thought may be suggested where one of man’s goals is to continue to reach for higher learning; to go beyond the ordinary. As the liberal arts, in older times, were considered essential studies in order to ‘free’ oneself or become a master, the precious value of both the trivium(3) and the quadrivium (4) can be recognized. Could this be one of the meanings Durer so much wants to convey in the ladder and the square? Both are limitless creations.
We do not see the top of the ladder in the image. In Duncan Burden’s responses to Six Questions, he wrote, “ladders disappearing into the heavens”. I love the image those words bring to my mind. I love not knowing all and love the climb into the unknown.
So there are my 1000 words on the picture (a little less), but I would love to hear some of yours. Feel free to comment on any object in the image or on the above. It is a golden piece of work.