The Beauty of Melancholy Faces

When we speak of beautiful faces, a generic set of assumptions and descriptions arise: proportionate features, geometrical perfection, and symmetrical smiles. Perhaps a residue of Renaissance art and its use of the golden ratio, we tend to find people whose faces are the most balanced, proportionate, symmetrical, that is to say, mathematical, the most beautiful.

But there is another kind of beauty, one that is certainly not skin deep. It is the beauty of a melancholy face. It is the beauty of eyes that betray an inner storm, a smile that reveals a life story that would fit a Dostoyevsky novel, facial lines that are traces of a history we want to discover. It as an altogether different, more penetrating and moving type of beauty.

One type of beauty may be found in mathematics, like the Pantheon of Athens. It is complete, ordered, and proportioned. It is a beauty of axioms resolved, virtues achieved, questions answered. But another type of beauty is found in complexity and mystery, like the beauty of a lightning storm. It is a beauty of unyielding force, of commotion and conflict, of rage and release. Order and chaos.

Melancholia, Domenico Fetti, 1618-1623

Consider this appropriately named painting, Melancholia. A human figure in the lower right hand corner, in the prime of its life contrasts against the observed skull. The wolf, symbolising the ravenous and ineluctable process of natural decay, looks down at the body. We can imagine the wolf saying ‘you’re time will come soon’. The man knows that one day he too will be nothing but husk and bone. He is thinking about time and how much (or little) of it he has left. There is an almost morbid beauty in his face. He is entranced, deep in thought, inviting us to wonder what he could possibly be thinking. What is beautiful in the most melancholic way is not the perfectly sculpted torso, but the mournful brooding of a man contemplating his own demise.

The Last Day of Pompeii, Karl Bryullov, 1830-1833

This woman’s face is not proportioned according to mathematical logic. Her nose is crook, her brow furrowed. But there is an intensity and savage honesty in her gaze as she looks upward to her impending doom. She is feeling, viscerally with her whole self, her psyche consumed by the terminal event. Her beauty comes from an expression of soul. It is perversely beautiful in its melancholic way because it makes us feel something. It is not the pleasure of a symmetrical face, but of something deeper, of the human condition.

The beauty of a melancholic face lies just as much in what it reveals as in what it doesn’t. What was the man’s conclusion? What were the woman’s final thoughts? The melancholic face is beautiful because it is, at its most fundamental, relatable. It expresses something about ourselves; that we are all somewhat broken, frightened, and consumed by inner storms that those around us can only guess at. The beauty of melancholy is precisely in how it captures the conflict that besieges us throughout our lives’. This beauty says ‘I too suffer like you’ and perhaps that is what we find most beautiful, the possibility that we do not suffer alone.

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