Tuesday, November 17th, 2009
Dürer’s Temperaments of the Four Humours
I got distracted today by Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504). I’m preparing a lecture on how Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I is influenced by the doctrine of the four humours, and then I remembered how Dürer also included references to the four humors in his Adam and Eve.
Let me explain a little bit about the doctrine of the humours. It a very complex notion about how humankind was linked to the natural world. The doctrine of the humours has largely been disproved by modern medicine, but it’s interesting to think about, especially since the doctrine was upheld for thousands of years. One interesting aspect of the doctrine discusses how basic elements of the earth are transformed into food for humans. Depending on the nature of the element, the food will then create four different bodily fluids (that in turn create different character types). Are you following me? The four character types or temperaments are: the melancholic, the phelgmatic, the choleric, and the sanguine.
Okay. Now to Adam and Eve. Dürer included four animals which represent these four different temperaments of the humours. To emphasize the character types, I’m also including Panofsky’s further explanations for each animal in parentheses:
Cat = Choleric (cruelty, pride)
Rabbit = Sanguine (sensuality)
Elk = Melancholic (gloom)
Ox = Phlegmatic (sluggishness, sloth)1
It’s interesting to see how these animals are still kind-of associated with these character types today. Doesn’t the phrase “Breed like rabbits!” still tie into sensuality? And aren’t oxen typically associated with slow, sluggish movements?
Dürer’s depiction of the four temperaments is fitting, given the subject matter. It was believed that the four temperaments were held-in-check while in Paradise. After the Fall (notice Eve is holding the forbidden fruit), the balance was lost and the the soul of man became “contaminated” by the humours.1
Are there any symbols or animals that you particularly like in this engraving? I’m always intrigued by the ibex in the far background (standing on the top of a mountain). I like the interpretation that the ibex is a represention the Adam and Eve, who figuratively stand on a spiritual precipice because of the Fall.
1 Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton University Press (1955), p. 120 and pp. 84-84. Citation also available online at http://www.csus.edu/indiv/v/vonmeierk/4-05BEAU.html, accessed 17 November 2009. If you’re interested in reading more about the iconography/symbolism for the other animals and objects in this engraving, I’d recommend that you read Panofsky’s interpretation.