Kim Novak as Madeleine
at Mission San Juan Bautista
in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958)

Hitchcock's Vertigo
Dürer's Melencolia

A Survey of Symbolism

by Peter Y. Chou

Albert Dürer (1471-1528)
Melencolia I (1514)

Preface: Stanford University celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo on October 16, 2008 with a film showing at the Stanford Theatre and a slide show by Jeff Kraft, co-author of Footsteps in the Fog: Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco featuring the Bay Area scenes shot in Vertigo. On October 17, 2008, a Vertigo Symposium was held at Stanford Humanities Center from 11 am to 5:30 pm. Professor Richard Allen (NYU) lectured on "The Perfection of Form". In the afternoon, talks were presented by Jean-Pierre Dupuy (Stanford) on "Time and Vertigo", Marilyn Fabe (UC Berkeley) on "Mourning Vertigo" and Roland Greene (Stanford) on "Vertiginous History". Pavle Levi (Stanford) and Krisine Samuelson (Stanford) served as moderators for the Q & A Session and Roundtable Discussion. I took some 30 pages of notes of the talks and the spirited discussions. It was a wonderful learning experience of this great film classic. Film critic Robin Wood had written about Hitchcock as the cinema's Shakespeare, and Vertigo as his Macbeth. At the Stanford Symposium, Richard Allen described Vertigo as "a film of profound melancholy." Jean-Pierre Dupuy said "Hitchcock is a philosopher and metaphysician."
    Since Aristotle asscociated philosophers with melancholy, it inspired me to dig up my 1985 research notes on Dürer's Melencolia I for a comparison of the symbolism in these two great works of art that are 444 years apart. The Melencolia I image was scanned from Albrecht Dürer Master Printmaker, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1971 (p. 225), a catalogue bought while attending this exhibit in Boston (November 17, 1971— January 16, 1972). The original etching is in black & white, which was made duotone (red-yellow) in Photoshop. (Notes to Engraving). Enlarged images from 1000 Frames of Vertigo (1958) were edited in Photoshop for brightness & contrast and resized. Frame # are denoted for reference. Film quotes are from Hitchcock's Vertigo Script.

Albert Dürer
Melencolia I (1514)
Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I (1514) is an engraving showing the Angel of Melancholy in despair for inspiration. There is a sphere near her feet and a semi-circular rainbow at the horizon. The 4x4 Magic Square of Jupiter acts as an amulet to ward off the evil planetary influences of Saturn. Each row adds up to 34 horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. Melencolia holds a compass in her right hand. Her left hand is against her cheek pondering on the irregular polyhedron before her. She wears a wreath of watercress on her head. Her assistant putto sits on a millstone with a circular hole at its center. The dog is asleep. Various tools of the craftsman are strewn around her feet. Images from Dürer's Melencolia I (1514) are compared to scenes in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) for common threads in these two art masterpieces 444 years apart.

Bat with Melencolia
(detail) Melencolia I

Vertigo Frame #924
Eyes of longing— Scottie's
desire fulfilled seeing Judy
transformed to Madeleine.
Vertigo Last frame #999
Scottie on Mission Tower top
watching Madeleine die again.
Cured of vertigo or devastated?
This is the only work of Dürer's which the title appears within the artwork. He shows a bat crying out in agaony carrying the banner "Melencolia" to the world. Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.) was the first to connect philosophers to melancholy: "Why is it that all those who have become eminent in philosophy or politics or poetry or the arts are clearly of a melancholic temperament, and some of them to such an extant as to be affected by diseases caused by black bile, as is said to have happened to Heracles among the heroes?" (Problems XXX.1, 953a10). Robert Burton (1577-1640) writes in the Abstract of his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): "When I build castles in the air, /Void of sorrow, void of fear / All my joys to this are folly; / Nought so sweet as melancholy. / Whatever is lovely or divine."
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) captures Scottie's traumatized state of mind at the end well in these lines from Titus Andronicus, II.3.30-36:
    Madam, though Venus govern your desires,
    Saturn is dominator over mine.
    What signifies my deadly-standing eye,
    My silence and my cloudy melancholy,
    My fleece of woolly hair that now uncurls
    Even as an adder when she doth unroll
    To do some fatal execution?

Ladder (detail)
Melencolia I

Vertigo Frame #97
Midge's Stepladder

Vertigo Frame #675
Ladder to retrieve
Madeleine Elster's body
Mission San Juan Bautista
The ladder is a symbol for ascent, the passage from one plane to another, or from one mode of being to another. The ladder represents access to reality and the Transcendent, going from "the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. In Jacob's dream, he saw "a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it." (Genesis 28.12). Dante describes the ladder he saw while flying with Beatrice through the Sphere of Saturn during his ascent to Paradise:
    I saw a ladder rising up so high
    that it could not be followed by my sight:
    its color, gold when gold is struck by sunlight.
    I also saw so many flames descend
    those steps that I thought every light displayed
    in heaven had been poured out from that place.

(Paradiso 21.28-33 translated by Allen Mandelbaum)
    In Vertigo, the ladder symbolizes fear and death more so than of spiritual ascent. We see Midge bringing out her stepladder for Scottie to conquer his acrophobia, but his fear of heights came back when he saw the streets below and collapsed in Midge's motherly arms. A second scene where the ladder appears is when it was used to retrieve Madeleine Elster's body on the roof of Mission San Juan Bautista when her corpse was tossed off the tower by her husband Gavin Elster in his nefarious murder plot. A ladder was probably used to rescue Scottie (not shown in film) when he was dangling from the roof gutter during the opening chase sequence when his colleague fell to his death trying to rescue Scottie. This incident led to Scottie's vertigo and his fear of heights, so he retired from the police force.

Hourglass (detail)
Melencolia I

Vertigo Frame #232
Carlotta Valdez's tombstone:
Marker of time (1831-1857)

Carlotta Valdez portrait
at Legion of Honor Museum

Vertigo Frame #529
Scottie & Madeleine visit
to Big Basin's redwoods,
oldest living things on earth.

Vertigo Frame #531
Tree rings of thousand-
year old Coast Redwood

Vertigo Frame #949
"Drive to the Past"— to scene
of the crime & relive past time
at Mission San Juan Bautista
Hourglass or Time
The hourglass is a symbol of time, transitoriness, the swift passage of life, the running out of time, and death. The two sections also portray the cyclic recurrence of life and death; the heavens and the earth; the sand running down is the attraction of the lower nature, the world. The hourglass is an attribute of the Reaper, Death, Father Time, who, as a skeleton, holds it with the scythe. In Christian art, the figure of Temperance (Tarot Card 14) sometimes holds an hourglass. (J.C. Cooper, Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, Thames & Hudson, London, 1978, p. 86) The hourglass is a symbol denoting the inversion of the relations between the Upper and Lower Worlds— an inversion encompassed periodically by Shiva, the Lord of creation and destruction. (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, Philosophical Library, NY, 1962, p. 145)
    Time is evoked numerous times in Vertigo. In his shipyard building office, old prints of San Francisco hang on the walls. Gavin Elster tells Scottie of his preference for yesteryears. "The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast... I should have liked to have lived here then— color, excitement, power, freedom." Elster's wife Madeleine is obsessed with the past too, wandering to Golden Gate Park to the Portals of the Past. She visits Mission Dolores graveyard to her great-grandmother Carlotta Valdez's tombstone (1831-1857). She goes to the Legion of Honor and sits at the portrait of Carlotta Valdez staring back into time, buying a nosegay of roses identical to those she's holding. She also mimicks Carlotta's hairstyle down to her spiral bun (Frame #241). In their trip to Big Basin's redwoods (Frame #529), they look at the cross section of a Coastal Redwood that is over a thousand years old (Frame #531). Madeleine points her finger at the outer rings and says "Somewhere in here I was born... and there I died." (Frames #535-536) Scottie tries to allay Madeleine's fear of death by telling her that the scientific name of the Coastal Redwood Sequoia sempervirens means "always green, ever living" as if to escape the constrictions of time and death. When they visit Mission San Juan Bautista (Frames #639-650) Madeleine is transported back in time to an old Spanish missionary. Scottie feels he's finally healed Madeleine of her nightmares and suicidal tendencies by explaining everything in a rational manner. But Madeleine's fall from the Mission's Tower would devastate Scottie, putting him in an insane asylum where he's having nightmares. When Scottie remakes Judy into Madeleine to satisfy his heart's desire, she wears Carlotta's necklace on their date. Scottie suddenly realizes that Judy was Madeleine all along and takes her back to San Juan Bautista. This "Drive to the Past" (Frames #947-951) to the scene of the crime to relive past time will cure Scottie's vertigo but with tragic consequences that he loses his only love.

Bell (detail)
Melencolia I

Vertigo Frame #818
Judy recalling scene of Elster
tossing his wife off the Bell
Tower at San Juan Bautista

Vertigo Frame #996
Shadow figure of nun appears
at Bell Tower at Mission San
Juan Bautista that scares Judy

Vertigo Frame #997
After Judy falls off the Tower,
Mother Superior tolls the Bell

Three bells in restored tower
at Mission San Juan Batista
in 1976— tolling for the
three death Scottie witnessed
in Hitchcock's film Vertigo?
The sound of the bell is a symbol of creative power. Since it is in a hanging position, it partakes of the mystic significance of all objects which are suspended between heaven and earth. It is related, by its shape, to the vault and consequently, to the heavens. (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, p. 23)
The bell is a symbol of consecration, a charm against the powers of destruction. The swinging of the bell represents the extremes of good and evil, death and immortality; its shape is the vault of heaven. Small bells sounding in the breeze symbolise the sweet sounds of Paradise. The ringing of a bell can be either a summons or a warning. For Christians, church bells call and encourage the faithful, put evil spirits to flight and quell storms. The hollow of the bell is the mouth of the preacher, the clapper is the tongue. (J.C. Cooper, Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, p. 86) The bell is an amulet used by primitive and Western people whose sound was intended to ward off the evil eye and dispel hostile spirits. The ancient Egyptians and Hebrews wore bells as protective amulets. In central Europe church bells were rung to rid villages of witches. In West Africa there was a similar ritual of demon expulsion by beating on drums, blowing on horns, banging on pots, and ringing bells. Our own noisemaking on New Year's Eve is a carry-over from such ceremonies. (Arthur S. Gregor, Amulets, Talismans, and Fetishes, Scribners, NY, 1975, pp. 26, 93)
    In Vertigo, Madeleine tells Scottie of her dream: "There's a tower and a bell and a garden below. It seems to be in Spain, it's in Spain, but so often it's gone." Scottie realized that she's describing a scene from Mission San Juan Bautista and they visit there. The photo at the top of this web page shows Kim Novak as Madeleine in a pensive mood under the Mission bell (not in film). When the bell images appears in the film, they are associated with death— first of Judy's recall of Madeleine Elster being tossed out of the tower, then of Judy's own fall when she stepped back in seeing the nun. Vertigo's penultimate shot showed Mother Superior tolling the bell for the death of Judy/Madeleine— the fate of karma that crime does not pay. Mission San Juan Bautista is four miles from Highway 101 and 90 miles south of San Francisco. The town remains frozen around 1850s with western storefronts and stables. The mission tower was lost to fire in the 1906 earthquake. so Hitchcock had one built in filming Vertigo (Dan Auiler, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1998, p. 64). The Mission was founded on June 24, 1797 and is the largest of the Spanish missions in California. The side walls of the church were restored in 1976 and a tower added with three bells. Are they tolling for the three death which Scottie witnessed in Vertigo?— his colleague who fell off the rooftop trying to save him; Madeleine's corpse tossed out from the tower by Gavin Elster to fool Scottie in the sinister murder plot of his wife; and Judy Barton who stumbled off the tower accidentally to her death upon seeing the dark nun appearing suddenly.

Watercress Wreath
worn on Angel's head
(detail) Melencolia I

Vertigo Frame #242
Bouquet of flowers
bought by Madeleine at
Podesta Baldocchi florist

Vertigo Frame #243
Flower bouquet held
by Carlotta Valdez in
Legion of Honor painting

Vertigo Frame #771
Bouquet of roses
at Podesta Baldocchi

Vertigo Frame #772
Scottie at Podesta Baldocchi
before spotting Judy Barton
Watercress Wreath
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is a fast-growing aquatic perennial herb from Europe. It has shiny green pinnate leaves with 5-15 leaflets. Flowers are white with four petals, 3-4 mm long, six stamens. Blooms March through November. Common in quiet water, slow streams, or wet banks below 8000 feet. Watercress is in demand for use in sandwiches, soups, and salads. Persians believed it would make children strong. Romans considered it excellent food for people with deranged minds. Native Americans used the plant for liver and kidney trouble as well as to dissolve gallstones. Best parts are those of the upper stems. Taste is typical of the Mustard family— peppery. (Charlotte Bringle Clarke, Edible & Useful Plants of California, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977)
    The wreath which Melencolia has bound around her brow is made up of the leaves of two plants which are both of a watery nature and therefore counteract the earthly dryness of the melancholy temperament. They are water parsley (Ranunculus aquaticus)— which Dürer had already associated with the combination of "Auster", "Phlegma", and "Aqua" in his woodcut "Philosophia" (title page, Conrad Celtes, Liri Amorium, 1502), and the common watercress (Nasturtium officinale). Melencolia's wreath was identified as water parsley by W. Bühler (Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für vervielfültigende Kunst, 1925, p. 44) and E. Büch (Die medizinische Welt, Vol. VII, no. 2, 1933, p. 69). Mrs. Eleanor Marquand, Princeton, points out that Melencolia's wreath consists not of one plant but of two, the second being watercress (cf. G. Bentham, Handbook of the British Flora, London, 1865) [Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, and Fritz Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art, T. Nelson, London (1964)]
    Like the wreath on Melencolia's head, the floral bouquet of Carlotta Valdez in Vertigo also has an aura of mystery. Scottie tails Madeleine's car to a dark narrow back alley where she enters the rear door of Podesta Baldocchi florist shop. Madeleine buys a nosegay of white and lavender roses. She brings them to the graveyard at Mission Dolores to the tombstone of Carlotta Valdez. Then she goes to the Legion of Honor and sits by the portrait of Carlotta who holds in her hand a similar bouquet of roses. On another day, Madeleine drives to Fort Point by Golden Gate Bridge. She plucks the petals from her rose bouquet and toss them into the waters one by one (Frames #390-392), then jumps into the Bay in an apparent suicide, but is rescued by Scottie.

Keys on Angel's belt
(detail) Melencholia I

Vertigo Frame #506
Scottie opens door with key
to retrieve Madeleine's
"Thank You" letter.
Vertigo Frame #576
By the ocean at 17-Mile Drive,
Scottie interprets her dream:
"If I could just find the key."
Vertigo Frame #721
Scottie's nightmare of Carlotta's
necklace: Is this the key to
the mystery of her death?
Vertigo Frame #940
Judy wears Carlotta's necklace:
Scottie finds key to mystery—
Judy is Madeleine!
The key is symbolic of mystery or enigma, or of a task to be performed and the means of carrying it out. It sometimes refers to the threshold of the unconscious. (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, p. 159)
The key is an axial symbol which includes all powers of opening and closing, binding and loosing. The key also denotes liberation, knowledge, the mysteries, initiation. It is closely connected with the Janus symbolism, a binder-and-looser, inventor of locks, and god of initiation. Janus holds the Keys of Power to open and close and the keys to the door giving access to the realm of gods and men, the doors of the solstices of Winter and Summer— Janua coeli in Capricorn being the door of the gods, the ascending and increasing power of the sun, and Janua inferni in Cancer the door of men and the descending and waning power of the sun. Silver and gold keys represent, respectively, temporal and spiritual power, the Lesser and Greater Mysteries, and the earthly and heavenly Paradise. In Christianity, the key is the emblem of Saint Peter as guardian of the gate of Heaven, also an attribute of the Pope. Saint Martha has a bunch of keys. For Graeco-Romans, the key is attribute of Hecate as guardian of hell; also of Persephone and Cybele. For Hebrews, the keys of God are the raising of the dead; birth, fertilizing rain. (J.C. Cooper, Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, pp. 90-91)
    When Scottie follows Madeleine to McKittrick Hotel, the manageress says she hasn't been there— "Her key is on the rack." Scottie goes up to the room and is befuddled that she's gone." After their trip to Big Basin's redwood forest, Madeleine and Scottie are seen at the 17-Mile Drive, where she heads for a lone cypress tree. Scottie follows her when Madeleine tells him about her dream of a tower and bell, and a garden in Spain. Scottie says "If I could just find the key, the beginning... and put it together,... And so explain it away? There is a way to explain it, you see." Scottie plays psychoanalyst, hoping to cure Madeleine's obsession with death. Like Sigmund Freud, he'll interpret her dreams and make sense of it all. He just have to find the key to do it. When Scottie had a mental breakdown after Madeleine's death, he dreamt of Carlotta with her necklace and an open grave. Is this the key to Madeleine's mystery? (Frame #721). Later when Scottie remade Judy into Madeleine, and she puts on Carlotta's necklace (Frame #940), it dawns upon Scottie that Judy is Madeleine! He's finally got the key to the mystery!

Magic Square (detail)
Melencolia I

Cronos (Saturn)
as Father Time

Kim Novak's poem
written at age 17
has 34 lines.
Magic Square of Jupiter
The 4x4 Magic Square of Jupiter has 16 squares.
16 3 2 13
5 10 11 8
9 6 7 12
4 15 14 1
The horizontal and vertical rows as well as the diagonals and quadrant squares all add up to 34 with total sum of 136. Dürer rearranged the 4x4 magic square reversing 14-15 to 15-14, the year of his engraving.
Also the numbers 16-5 at the upper left column may be construed as 16th May, the day his mother Barbara Holper Dürer died (May 16, 1514) at age 63. She had given birth to 18 children of whom only three reached adulthood. Dürer's contemporary Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) published De Occulta Philosophia (1510). In Chapter XXII, he shows the tables of the Planets with Magic Squares of Saturn (3x3), Jupiter (4x4), Mars (5x5), Sun (6x6), Venus (7x7), Mercury (8x8), and Moon (9x9). These magic squares were popular in medieval Europe and worn as amulets to protect the wearer against ill luck. The planet Saturn is associated with Cronos, depicted as an old man with a scythe, Father Time, and Death. Because Saturn (Cronos) devoured his children when they're born, he is considered malefic in astrology. Since Jupiter (Zeus) overthrew Cronos, it is regarded as a jovial and benevolent planet in astrology. Hence the 4x4 Magic Square of Jupiter is a talisman used to ward off the evil influence of Saturn or Death. Dürer's engraving Melencolia I may be a memorial to his mother as well as the melancholic philosopher pondering on the mysteries of life. Finally, Kim Novak's poem "A train makes me lonely" (1950) written when she was 17 contains 34 lines. The first half of the poem (17 lines = 17 years) is about her past failures, but the second half is her projected vision for the future where she wove a fairy-tale ending and found the right home and true love. Somehow unknowningly, Kim Novak's 34-lines poem invoked the "34 sums" in the Magic Square of Jupiter that made her life propitious and productive as a successful actress and a caring human being.


Afterword: When I attended Robert Bly's Poetry Retreat at Asilomar in 1988, we were walking to lunch when he asked me about my poetry. I hadn't written much back then as I've just changed my career from biochemistry to poetry. I told him that when I moved to Palo Alto from Boston in 1985, I spent six months in the Stanford Rare Book Collection researching Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I. Bly asked me "Did you figure out why Dürer rearranged the traditional 4x4 magic square?" I told him "Yes, it was to honor his mother who had just died, so Dürer's Melencolia I was dedicated to her. That may also explain why the Angel looked so melancholic." Bly stopped walking, and said "I thought I was the only person who figured that out. I'm surprised that you got it too!" So 16-5 and 15-14 in the magic square marked the date of Barbara Holper Dürer's death. I just realized that today marks the date of my Mom's 100th birthday (Oct. 30, 1908-Dec. 25, 2005). So I dedicate this web page to my fond memories of Mom (October 30 & Memorial Page).

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