The work has been the subject of more modern interpretation than almost any other print, including a two-volume book by Peter-Klaus Schuster, and a very influential discussion in his Dürer monograph by Erwin Panofsky. Reproduction usually makes the image seem darker than it is in an original impression (copy) of the engraving, and in particular affects the facial expression of the female figure, which is rather more cheerful than in most reproductions. The title comes from the (archaically spelled) title, Melencolia I, appearing within the engraving itself. It is the only one of Dürer's engravings to have a title in the plate. The date of 1514 appears in the bottom row of the magic square, as well as above Dürer's monogram at bottom right. Suggestions that a series of engravings on the subject was planned are not generally accepted. Instead it seems more likely that the "I" refers to the first of the three types of melancholia defined by the German humanist writer Cornelius Agrippa. In this type, Melencholia Imaginativa, which he held artists to be subject to, 'imagination' predominates over 'mind' or 'reason'.
One interpretation suggests the image references the depressive or melancholy state and accordingly explains various elements of the picture. Among the most conspicuous are:
The tools of geometry and architecture surround the figure, unused
The 4 × 4 magic square, with the two middle cells of the bottom row giving the date of the engraving: 1514. The square features the traditional magic square rules based on the number 34, and in addition, the square's four quadrants, corners and center also equal this number.
Mathematical knowledge is referenced by the use of the symbols: compass, geometrical solid, magic square, scale, hourglass.
An autobiographical interpretation of Melencolia I has been suggested by several historians. Iván Fenyő considered the print a representation of the artist beset by a loss of confidence, saying: "shortly before [Dürer] drew Melancholy, he wrote: 'what is beautiful I do not know' ... Melancholy is a lyric confession, the self-conscious introspection of the Renaissance artist, unprecedented in northern art. Erwin Panofsky is right in considering this admirable plate the spiritual self-portrait of Dürer."
^Dodgson, Campbell (1926). Albrecht Dürer. London: Medici Society. p. 94. "The literature on Melancholia is more extensive than on any other engraving by Dürer: that statement would probably remain true if the last two words were omitted."
^Schuster, Peter-Klaus (1991). MELENCOLIA I: Dürers Denkbild. Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag. pp. 17–83.
^Weitzel, Hans. A further hypothesis on the polyhedron of A. Dürer, Historia Mathematica31 (2004) 11
^It has been conjectured that Dürer had seen the Ensisheim meteorite in 1492 and remained deeply impressed, see Ursula B. Marvin, "The meteorite of Ensisheim - 1492 to 1992", Meteoritics 27, p. 28-72 (1992) and Christopher Cokinos, "The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars", New York: Tarcher/Penguin (2009).
^Fenyő, Iván (1956). Albrecht Dürer. Budapest: Corvina. p. 52.
Brion, Marcel. Dürer. London: Thames and Hudson, 1960
Nürnberg, Verlag Hans Carl. Dürer in Dublin: Engravings and woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer. Chester Beatty Library, 1983
Ewald Lassnig, Dürers "MELENCOLIA-I" und die Erkenntnistheorie bei Ulrich Pinder; in: Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte, 2008, S. 51-95
Ernst Th. Mayer: Melencolia § I – der "angelo terrestre" und sein gleichzeitiges doppeltes Sehvermögen. Befunderhebung aufgrund der visuellen Geometrie von Dürers verschlüsseltem Selbstbildnis (1514). In: Musik-,Tanz- und Kunsttherapie, Vol. 20, 2009, Nr. 1, S. 8–22.