Perfection's Therapy

Perfection's Therapy

An Essay on Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I

By Mitchell B. Merback

A deft reinterpretation of the most zealously interpreted picture in the Western canon as a therapeutic artifact.

Distributed for Zone Books

Hardcover $32.95 T £28.00





A deft reinterpretation of the most zealously interpreted picture in the Western canon as a therapeutic artifact.

Albrecht Dürer's famous portrayal of creative effort in paralysis, the unsurpassed masterpiece of copperplate engraving titled Melencolia I, has stood for centuries as a pictorial summa of knowledge about the melancholic temperament, a dense allegory of the limits of earthbound arts and sciences and the impossibility of attaining perfection. Dubbed the “image of images” for being the most zealously interpreted picture in the Western canon, Melencolia I also presides over the origins of modern iconology, art history's own science of meaning. Yet we are left with a clutter of mutually contradictory theories, a historiographic ruin that confirms the mood of its object. In Perfection's Therapy, Mitchell Merback reopens the case file and argues for a hidden intentionality in Melencolia's opacity, its structural “chaos,” and its resistance to allegorical closure. That intentionality, he argues, points toward a fascinating possibility never before considered: that Dürer's masterpiece is not only an arresting diagnosis of melancholic distress, but an innovative instrument for its undoing.

Merback deftly resituates Dürer's image within the long history of the therapeutic artifact. Placing Dürer's therapeutic project in dialogue with that of humanism's founder, Francesco Petrarch, Merback also unearths Dürer's ambition to act as a physician of the soul. Celebrated as the "Apelles of the black line" in his own day, and ever since as Germany's first Renaissance painter-theorist, the Dürer we encounter here is also the first modern Christian artist, addressing himself to the distress of souls, including his own. Melencolia thus emerges as a key reference point in a venture of spiritual-ethical therapy, a work designed to exercise the mind, restore the body's equilibrium, and help in getting on with the undertaking of perfection.


$32.95 T | £28.00 ISBN: 9781942130000 360 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 92 b&w illus.


  • … many things to savor in Merback's book … it erects an intriguing mode of interpretation …


  • ... highly speculative, erudite, and informed.


  • Merback's stunning book makes the case for the inception of a new genre of imagery in Melencolia I.

    3:AM Magazine


  • Reaching back through countless failed interpretations, Merback discerns the original function of art history's most elusive print: to serve homeopathically as a balm for failed human endeavors. Wide-ranging and accessible, this book recovers the ethos and pathos of Dürer's masterpiece while also opening a window to the troubled soul of Renaissance humanism.

    Joseph Leo Koerner

    author of The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art and Bosch and Bruegel

  • Merback is one of our era's most ethically minded historians of art. In Perfection's Therapy, he argues that the misery born of the pursuit of perfection, a sickness often associated with the modern genius, was an affliction that Dürer understood as a shared predicament. To show that Melencolia I served as an instrument for remedying this affliction, Merback convincingly reframes how the print mobilized cognitive processes. Like the early modern beholder Dürer's art was designed to assist, we emerge from this intricate and persuasive argument having been moved to a new place in our thinking, more capable, and refreshed.

    Shira Brisman

    author of Albrecht Dürer and the Epistolary Mode of Address