Melencolia 1

It’s almost 30 years since I bought a copy of the engraving Melencolia I by the Deutsche Druckerei , during a trip in Germany, fascinated by the meditative expression of the figure, and the perception that thre was a message hidden in the objects around her. Ten 10 years later I bought the book “Saturn and melancholy,” by Klibansky, Panofsky and Saxl, originally published in 1964, but it was not until recently that I found the opportunity to read it. It locates Dürer’s engraving in the context of evolving conceptions about Saturn and melancholy.

Dürer would have merged the representation of a Saturnian melancholy, a dark face, head leaning on the hand, with the representation of geometry as a liberal art, a figure with geometric and mathematical tools. The essay’s hypothesis is that Melencolia I engraving follows an idea of Agrippa von Nettesheim exposed in Occulta Philosophia, and corresponds to a certain melancholia imaginativa, the first stage of a group of three, the other two being malencholia rationalis and melancholia mentalis.
The ancients related four body fluids or humors to different combinations of basic properties. This is consolidated with Hippocrates and Galen and four temperaments or moods:

Blood             hot, wet          sanguine
Yellow bile    hot, dry          choleric
Black bile      cold, dry         melancholic (melan = black, cholic = bilis)
Phlegm         cold, wet        phlegmatic

Theophrastus, the probable author of Problemata XXX.1 (formerly attributed to Aristotle) proposed  a theory about genius stating that black bile had the property of amplifying faculties or emotions, as it could become very cold or very hot. When cold it would lead to clumsiness while when hot it would raise us to rapture and, in excess, to insanity. Those that stay away from the extremes would be “superior to others in terms of mind sharpness or in arts”. Cold in excess would induce depression and suicide. An alternative point of view about genius , with no relation with black bile, is proposed by Plato in  Phaedrus; “divine madness”, a certain state of ecstasy that allows the philosopher, the lover or the poet to grasp pure Forms beyond reason.

This conception of melancholy was not shared by everyone. The Stoics and later, Galen, considered melancholy as a disease. Instead of a certain humor that could enable genius or depression, the thesis was inverted; sadness and depression would be an outcome of an excess of intellectual activity. Saturn, overthrown  by his sons, was associated with agriculture, old age, coldness, covetousness, selfishness and melancolics. In late antiquity and the Middle Ages prevails this negative sense, although for neoplatonics Saturn was related to intellect (represented as a god that meditates, the head leaning on the hand), and for the orphics it was the architect of the world.

Marsilio Ficino, neoplatonist, was the first to relate Plato’s furor divinus with melancholy. Like body and mind, connected through a subtle fluid called spiritus, the whole universe was like a huge organism, with a universal mind connected to a universal matter through a certain spiritus mundanusMens imaginativa was attributed to Mars, mens rationalis to Jupiter and mens contemplativa to Saturn.

In Dürer’s engraving we find symbols related with the depiction of melancholy: the key and the purse, symbols of wealth and power, the closed fist for the covetous and, clearly, the head leaning on a hand. The dog, the bat and the marina with ships are interpreted as Saturn symbols.  The garland on the head  could be an antidote against saturnian melancholic’s depression, perhaps, white water-crowfoot,  or watercress .  Number 4 in the magic square would be an invocation to Jupiter. We find also symbols corresponding to the representation of geometry as one of the seven liberal arts, either concerning theory (the sphere, the book, the ink), descriptive geometry (the famous rhombohedron) or practical uses (the cabinetmaker tools, the hammer, the plane, the tongs).

In Occulta Philosophia, Agrippa follows Ficino’s idea that the powers of terrestrials things are “emanations from a divine unity transmitted by planets” and also other daemons of inferior rank. After dealing with astrology and talismans, in the third book he introduces Vaticinium, direct revelation, when “the soul, inspired by superior powers, meets the ultimate grounds of this world and the next one, and miraculously sees all that is, has been, or will be in a  remote future.” This is only possible when the soul is not busy in other activities (vacat). This “vacatio animae” can take three forms: true dreams (somnia), elevation of the soul through contemplation (raptus), and enlightening of the soul by daemons (furor). This furor reminds of Plato and can proceed from the muses, Dionysos, apollo, Venus or melancholy.

So, there would be three melancholy stages. The first one corresponds to the faculty of imaginatio, mechanical arts such as architecture or painting and it could foretell about natural disasters like floods (something depicted in the engraving!). The second one relates to the faculty of ratio, knowledge of natural and human things and could make profecies about politics events. In the third one we find the mens, the knowledge of divine secrets, angeology and theology; it could make predictions about religious events. Dürer’s engraving would illustrate the first stage. This would explain the “1” qualifying the title.

Dürer was very interested in the art of measurement and wrote a book explaining its utility, not only for “painters, but also for goldsmiths, sculptors, masons and carpenters”. Geometry was the model for sciences. In his thirties, impassioned by the possibitities of art theory learned from Jacopo de Barbari, he believed that perhaps he could define universal and unique beauty with the help of compass and square.

[Was this the project of the Dresden Sketchbook?]

Ten years later, and just before attempting the engraving M1, he would wrote in the Nachlass “what is Beauty, I don’t know […] there is no man alive on earth who can tell or prove what could be the most beautiful human figure. Only God can judge Beauty […] I think there is no man alive who can contemplate the ultimate beauty even in a small creature so even les could he in a human being […]

[ I wonder, when Dürer was writing this, was he thinking of the humble and sublime turf watercolour? or the hare?]

“But God knows about these things, and if He feels like revealing it to someone, this person will know it too. .. But I can not prove any particular measure that gets close to supreme beauty”.

Other than the illustration of Agrippa’s ideas, in Melencolia 1 there is, perhaps, a trace of the fatigue caused by the quest in search of abolute beauty, the hands loose its grip on the geometrical compass, and atired gaze is lost in the horizon.

Little tea museum

Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism—Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.  The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.

I guess I was around 15 when I read, fascinated, those first lines from Okakura Kakuzo’s Book of Tea. Since then, countless cups of tea have been present in different moments of the day, at breakfast, reading or studying in the afternoon, walking among plants in the terrace, eating a tart, at home or, when travelling, high tea in a glamorous hotel, or on a bunk in a train compartment. Now, I realize that during all those years I have assembled enough items related with tea as to think of them as a little museum.

A teapot bought at Vinçon, 25 yars ago. The lid broke.
A modern style tea, coffee set, through ebay. Nice solid metal pieces, wooden handles.
An Imari teacup, around 1920, fine british china.
A beautiful teapot bought  in a street market in Xian in 2005. A cup with a lid (gaiwan) bought in ChengDu. In some parks, people pay for an amount of tea leaves in a gaiwan. Then an assistant  serves every table with boiling water. People spend there hours, chatting and drinking.
The Gongfu way for preparing tea appears in LuYu’s classic book in the 8th century. A small teapot, around 150 ml, out of Yxing clay if possible, filled with lenough leaves so that they occupy of the volume when expanded by the action of hot water. Infusions are short, around 30 secs for the first cup. Oolongs are the preferred teas for this method.
Two delicate celadon cups.
The MingCha tea collection, to initiate in different Oolongs tasting, Tie Guan Yin, Phoenix,  Wuyi yan cha, also a Puer, a white and green teas. Bought in Hong Kong.  F. Amalfi. Todos los tés el mundo.
If you have been in China you will recognise this flask, and the popular jasmine tea.
The gorgeous iron cast teapots, or tetsubin, that here are selled in fancy shops, in Japan can be found in simple hardware stores!
Tools for preparing the matcha, the bamboo scoop or chashaku, and the whisk or chasen.
A modest raku bought in Kyoto after long deliberation. The picture does not make justice to the subtle tones of granate mixing with black. The container box is a beautiful object in itself.
Indian tea, bought in Varanasi, and species used fro preparing, with milk and sugar, this sweet and specied drink so different from the teas we drink normally.
If some time ago, all russian homes had a samovar for tea, now they have been replaced by modern, plastic models with a thermostat. I could not help buying a traditional samovar made in Tula. I guess I wanted to have the feeling of sharing a tradition.
Two exceptional books, the already quoted Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, and Luyu’s venerable The classic of Tea.

Almond trees 2011. Urgell


Fall 2010

When looking at this picture one could think that it is an aerial snaphot of a dry landscape. Actually it is, if I am not mistaken, an aspen (populus tremula) leaf. With large petioles, aspen’s leaves are easily shaken even by an easy breeze, whence the latin name, “shaky poplar”. Some weeks ago, in Madriu valley in Andorra, a little aspen forest offered this range of colours.

Frank conversation a life’s end … and beginning

In the last post we mentioned the “frank talks” at life’s end, when sometimes one has to decide between life-extending therapies, and pain palliative care. The question was about how much are we willing to go through to have a shot of being alive and what level of being alive is acceptable. ¿What would we answer if we were told that we would be mentally aware, able to read, hold a conversation, but walking or normal feeding would be impossible and we would be dependent on pain relievers?

Let’s imagine that this kind of talk would be possible at life’s beginning, before birth, as if we were a indeterminate non-being that can choose about going into existence (let’s forget for an instant the paradox of an indeterminate identity having to choose).

We would be informed about the equipment and conditions of our earthly stay, our genetic code, the strengths and weaknesses: “If you want to enter into existence now, those are your options, you will be a male, medium height, medium intelligence, not exactly an athlete, nor a genius.” We would be informed too about the social environment, in what kind family and in which country are we going to be raised, whether it is  in the developed world or the undeveloped. ( the TV series Quantum Leap proposed a similar approach ).

(from Dürer’s Dresden Sketchbook on Human Proportion)
Perhaps we would not be satisfied with just that piece of information, the cards that are dealt out to us. Before betting on the game of life we would inquiry about whether we are going to have a happy life, or an interesting one, whether we are going to experience pain, or frustration; how long are we going to live. Probably a honest answer would not be a completely  reassuring one. Some amount of confusion, pain and disappointments are guaranteed. But the list of possibilities of knowing, discovering and enjoy is endless. Saul Bellow said it wonderfully in Ravelstein. If we can, for example, feel the fresh, cold morning air when we open the window to ventilate the bedroom, or the taste of olive oil on a toast, talk with a friend, is that enough?

We could imagine that we are buying the tickets for a certain kind of life trip. Success is not guaranteed and it’s really the ultimate adventure trip, engaging into existence in a particular time, place and human condition. If this was like planning a hike, a hypothetical guide could certainly tell that along the way we are going to find traps, injuries and at the same time, delicious fountains, unexpected views, wonderful presents. But no map with white or black points is given. We can miss wonders placed along the way just because we are still recovering from our last misstep.

We could also imagine that instead of having the choice of entering into existence or not, we would be able to choose what kind of life. This is what Plato considers at the end of the Republic in the myth of Er.

After death, souls are given the chance of choosing a particular kind of life for another cycle, a tyran, an animal, a normal man. Before being born again, souls pass through the plain of Forgetfulness and drink the water from the river of Unmindfulness, so that they don’t remember the process. I wonder what could I choose for my next cycle, or what was I thinking when I opted for my present life.

Hear the word of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity. Mortal souls, behold a new cycle of life and mortality. Your genius will not be allotted to you, but you choose your genius; and let him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the life which he chooses shall be his destiny. […] When the Interpreter had thus spoken he scattered lots indifferently among them all, and each of them took up the lot which fell near him, all but Er himself (he was not allowed), and each as he took his lot perceived the number which he had obtained. Then the Interpreter placed on the ground before them the samples of lives; and there were many more lives than the souls present, and they were of all sorts. There were lives of every animal and of man in every condition. And there were tyrannies among them, some lasting out the tyrant’s life, others which broke off in the middle and came to an end in poverty and exile and beggary; and there were lives of famous men, some who were famous for their form and beauty as well as for their strength and success in games, or, again, for their birth and the qualities of their ancestors; and some who were the reverse of famous for the opposite qualities. And of women likewise; there was not, however, any definite character them, because the soul, when choosing a new life, must of necessity become different. But there was every other quality, and the all mingled with one another, and also with elements of wealth and poverty, and disease and health; and there were mean states also. 

Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and may find some one who will make him able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity.
[…] A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon tyrannies and similar villainies, he do irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself; but let him know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. For this is the way of happiness. …]

The soul which obtained the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion, and this was the soul of Ajax the son of Telamon, who would not be a man, remembering the injustice which was done him the judgment about the arms. The next was Agamemnon, who took the life of an eagle, because, like Ajax, he hated human nature by reason of his sufferings. About the middle came the lot of Atalanta; she, seeing the great fame of an athlete, was unable to resist the temptation: and after her there followed the soul of Epeus the son of Panopeus passing into the nature of a woman cunning in the arts; and far away among the last who chose, the soul of the jester Thersites was putting on the form of a monkey. There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it. […]
and when they had all passed, they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting.

Plato. Republic. Book X

Ars moriendi: Ice cream and TV

‘Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive. I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.’

That was the unexpected answer that a professor emeritus with a terminal disease gave to the question: “how much you’re willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable to you”.

It was a conversation between a palliative-care specialist and a patient. When facing the last months of one’s life, quite often we must choose between therapies focused in extending life, involving costly and aggressive hospital care, and options focused in relieving pain…

This conversation is quoted in an excellent essay by Atul Gawande, Letting Go, What should medicine do when it can’t save your life (New Yorker, 02/08/2010 ). The convenience and legislation about this kind of conversations were discussed also in Frank Talk About Care at Life’s End (New York Times, 24/08/2010).

The American healthcare system is “excellent at trying to stave off death with eight-thousand-dollar-a-month chemotherapy, three-thousand-dollar-a-day intensive care, five-thousand-dollar-an-hour surgery”. A kind of care that often ends with the patient lying attached to mechanical ventilator, mind and body shutting down and no chance for saying goodbye to people we care about. On the other hand, surveys show that the top priorities would be “in addition to avoiding suffering, being with family, having the touch of others, being mentally aware, and not becoming a burden to others.”

We don’t have -Gawande says- an updated Ars Moriendi. It was a medieval text with advice about a good death. I couldn’t agree more. I wonder what kind of training should doctors receive in order to be able to teach patients in Ars moriendi. The thing that fascinates me is the diversity of possible answers to the question “what level of being alive is tolerable”. For someone, anything but death is acceptable, for others, if you are not able to feel the adrenaline of extreme sports, life is not worth living. People that commit suicide after an economic reversal, cannot imagine a life without a certain level of comfort. We realize that is not possible to elaborate an Ars Moriendi without writing at the same time an Ars Vivendi. Being mentally aware, to be able to watch the changing forms of clouds in the sky through a window, the lines traced by swallows in spring, a cup of tea and a piece of cake, or some cheese and red wine, watching a comedy or a musical on TV, a conversation with agreements and disagreements.

The gaze from a dome

Anyone travelling to Russia or another country where Orthodox church is present will notice the domes on top of the churches. When seen from afar, in some village, or when turning around a corner in a street in Moscow, they appear in our eyes as as fantastic buildings from a fairy tale.

When I went inside, I used to watch the burning candles and the plethora of icons on the walls.

It was not until later that I looked up and found, painted in each cupola, a great face. It could be the image of Christ, the Virgin or another Saint. The effect was very special, as if they were up there,  watching us in silence, a gaze serious and serene, but not threatening, as if saying “here I am, if you want to talk, I’ll listen”. The fact that when you enter is not visible immediately, not until you are beneath it and look upwards, and that most of the other visitors ignore them, gives an intimate touch to the experience, as if they were addressing us personally. Since then, when reaching a new church, for every dome-onion seen from outside, I was looking already for a face with a gaze inside.


Human zoo scenes

The human ant farm provided a panoramic view of human activities. What about a closer look? If some extraterrestrials fetched us, and back in their planet would like to expose us like animals in a zoo, what kind of cage would be built? Perhaps the human zoo would consists of a series of sets staged for different scenes of a play. And every day, without no significant changes, the same scenes would be performed again and again. For instance:

Scene1: a bedroom and a bathroom. The subject sleeps, wakes up, washes, gets dressed and goes.
Interlude: commuting to work, by bike, car or public transportation.
Scene 2: An office, desks with computers, papers, coworkers. The subject works, talks to other people, has lunch break.
Interlude: commuting back homeScene 3: This one can be diverse, a garden, a shop, a gym. The subject can do different activities depending on the day, weather or humor. He reads, exercises, takes care of a garden, perhaps picks his children from school.
Scene 4: a sofa, a table, a kitchen. The subject cooks some food, has dinner, clears the table, sits on the sofa and watches TV.
Scene 5: same set has scene1, a bedroom and a bathroom. The subject undresses, pees, brushes his teeth and goes to sleep.

Every day life may be just like that, jumping from one stage set to the next one, following a certain schedule, and play the assigned scene. It’s like one of this shows that have been on stage for years. Although the scenes are the same every day, we are allowed a fair degree of freedom for improvisation, changing dialogs and interactions with objects and people. I think of those great actors that never get tired or bored of acting the same play every night, creative enough to find always something new to enrich it with subtle changes. I wish I could do the same.

A few times in along a lifetime, the theater changes the show completely, new decorates, new characters, new plot. It’s when when we move to a new apartment, find a new job or partner, or when we start working after years of studying.I can imagine a simulation of a human zoo, a kind of enlarged dioramas like those we can see sometimes in history museums, depicting life in neolithic times for instance. Different kinds of lives would be exhibited as very short theater plays, a day compressed in a60 minute play. A farmer in medieval times, a roman matron, a soldier in napoleonic wars, a boy in the1930s in Barcelona, an executive woman in the XXI century.

Urban almond trees

I have the location of two almond trees in Barcelona, in both ends of Diagonal avenue, Pedralbes and Glòries.


I visited them and shot pictures before the huge snowstorm of March the eight. They are easy to reach so that I can admire some white petals without having to take a plane to Japan when cherries blossom; a bike or metro ride is enough.

Brave trees! They challenge not only cold weather, but also the polluted air, noise, concrete. They make me think that a harsh surrounding is not an unsurmountable impediment for growing something beautiful, subtle and resilient.