Obviously the four humors or temperaments could not be considered as equally desirable. The sanguine temperament, associated with air, spring, morning and youth, was, and in some measure still is, regarded as the most auspicious one. Favored with a well-knit body and a ruddy complexion, the sanguine seemed to surpass all other types in natural cheerfulness, sociability, generosity and talents of all description; even his faults, a certain weakness for wine, good food and love, were of the amiable and pardonable kind. Blood is, after all, a nobler and healthier fluid than the two kinds of gall or phlegm. We remember that certain theorists considered the sanguine temperament as the original, or perfectly balanced, condition of man; and even after this ideal equilibrium had been destroyed by the sin of Adam the predominance of the blood was much preferred to any of the other alternatives.

As the sanguine condition was greeted as the most fortunate, so the melancholic was hated and feared as the worst. When excessively augmented, inflamed, or otherwise disturbed, the black gall causes the most dreaded of all diseases, insanity; this disease can befall anybody, but the melancholies by nature are its most likely prey. And even without a downright pathological disturbance the natural or constitutional melancholies – generally considered as pessime complexionati (“the most ill-mixtured”) – are both unfortunate and disagreeable. Thin and swarthy, the melancholic is “awkward, miserly, spiteful, greedy, malicious, cowardly, faithless, irreverent and drowsy.” He is “surly, sad, forgetful, lazy and sluggish”; he shuns the company of his fellow-men and despises the opposite sex; and his only redeeming feature – and even this is frequently omitted from the texts – is a certain inclination for solitary study.

From The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, by Erwin Panofsky. Images from (no joke) the US National Institutes of Health.