Salvator Rosa’s etching Democritus in Meditation appears at first glance to be nothing more complex than a particularly intricate depiction of the vanity of human endeavors, and most scholars choose to analyze it in this context alone. Deeper scrutiny, however, reveals a fertile link to Renaissance notions of the artist and the melancholy temperament, specifically in regards to the figure of the melancholic sorcerer. Following the suggestions of Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in Legend, Myth, and Magic in the Image of the Artist, it becomes unmistakably clear that the artist has always been attributed supernatural faculties, operating somewhere between “evil magician and mighty creator.” By taking into consideration the preexisting melancholy portraits that preceded and influenced Rosa’s Democritus and the group of symbols common to both melancholy and arcane subjects, as well as the corpus of witchcraft paintings executed by Rosa, we can positively identify a subtext of magic in a work which is ostensibly only about vanitas, thereby establishing a link between attitudes toward melancholy and the belief in the occult.
Jon David Stroud, ’15
Mount Vernon, IA
Art & Art History
Sponsor: Christina Penn-Goetsch