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.

2 Ibid.

  • heidenkind says:

    Aren't the four humors in Durer's Last Supper, too? I think I vaguely remember hearing about that in Art Hist. 101….

  • Rachsticle says:

    I like how the cat is characterized. I personally feel that cats can be very cruel. They have been known to eat their owners.

  • joolee says:

    What about the bird on the branch Adam is holding? Any specific representation?

  • e says:

    I'm wondering about the mouse. What does that mean?

    That's interesting that an elk would represent gloom. At first I thought, "No way". Then, as I've been thinking about it, I guess that could be. Have you ever heard an elk's call? It's kind of gloomy and depressing.

  • M says:

    heidenkind, I've never heard that about the "Last Supper." Do you remember any specifics? I know that Durer connected each of his "Four Apostles" to one of the humours (see here), but that's the only other connection that I know. I really need to get my hands on Panofsky's book – I'm sure that he discusses the humours and Durer in a lot more detail.

    Joolee, I've read a couple of different interpretations about the parrot. Some think that it symbolizes sin (because parrots are chatty birds), but I don't know if I completely buy into that. Others say that the bird symbolizes Mary as a second Eve (one that will bring redemption back into the world). Panofsky refers to the parrot as a noble creature; he thinks it's supposed to be a visual and symbolic contrast against the diabolical serpent. Likewise, Panofsky finds the branch that Adam holds is supposed to represent the Tree of Life, which is in contrast to the forbidden fig tree.

    e, Panofsky also writes about the mouse. It is included with the cat to create a tense dynamic between the animals. This tension is supposed to represent the (sexual) tension between Adam and Eve. I think that's a pretty interesting comparison.

    And e, I thought the same thing about elk calls. They are kind of gloomy. 🙂

  • heidenkind says:

    I remember the four objects in the lower right-hand corner represent something, but I can't remember what. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/d/durer/2/12/9_1528/3lastsup.html

  • M says:

    Well, heidenkind, you've piqued my curiosity again! 🙂 I looked a little into those "Last Supper" objects. Trusty ol' "Gardner's Art Through the Ages" talks about how the bread and wine represent the Eucharist. The woodcut is supposed to have Protestant overtones, since Luther thought that the Communion was commemorative (instead of a literal reenactment) of Christ's sacrifice. The empty platter emphasizes the commemorative (rather than literal) nature of the Mass too, since traditional (er, Catholic) depictions show a slaughtered lamb on the plate. (See GATHA, 12th edition, p. 670)

    It looks like the other object contains Durer's initials and the date of the woodcut. I haven't found anything else written about it.

    Anyhow, that's what I've found so far. If there is an additional association with the four humours, I haven't come across it yet. 🙂

    Oh, and I also found out another thing regarding the mouse in Adam and Eve. The tension between the mouse and cat does not necessarily need to refer to sexual tension. Instead, the tension can also symbolize "the relation between Adam and Eve at the crucial moment if The Fall of Man." (GATHA, 12th ed., p. 671).

  • heidenkind says:

    Good ol' Gardner's. 🙂 I'll have to dig through my notes to see if there was anything else, but that sounds right.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.