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.