occurs when a thing or abstraction is represented as a person, in literature or art, as an anthropomorphic metaphor. The type of personification discussed here excludes passing literary effects such as "Shadows hold their breath", and covers cases where a personification appears as a character in literature, or a human figure in art. The technical term for this, since ancient Greece, is prosopopoeia.
In the arts many things are commonly personified. These include numerous types of places, especially cities, countries and the four continents, elements of the natural world such as the months or Four Seasons, Four Elements, Four Winds, Five Senses, and abstractions such as virtues, especially the four cardinal virtues and sins, or the nine Muses. Death envisaged as a skeleton, often with a scythe and hour-glass, is a late medieval innovation, that became very common after the Black Death. However, it is rarely seen in funerary art "before the Counter-Reformation".
An unusually powerful single personification figure is depicted in Melencolia I (1514) an engraving by Albrecht Dürer. The print's central subject is an enigmatic and gloomy winged female figure thought to be a personification of melancholia – melancholy. Holding her head in her hand, she stares past the busy scene in front of her. The area is strewn with symbols and tools associated with craft and carpentry, including an hourglass, weighing scales, a hand plane, a claw hammer, and a saw. Other objects relate to alchemy, geometry or numerology. Behind the figure is a structure with an embedded magic square, and a ladder leading beyond the frame. The sky contains a rainbow, a comet or planet, and a bat-like creature bearing the text that has become the print's title.
Dürer's engraving is one of the most well-known extant old master prints, but, despite a vast art-historical literature, it has resisted any definitive interpretation. Dürer may have associated melancholia with creative activity; the woman may be a representation of a Muse, awaiting inspiration but fearful that it will not return. As such, Dürer may have intended the print as a veiled self-portrait. Art historian Erwin Panofsky wrote that "the influence of Dürer's Melencolia I—the first representation in which the concept of melancholy was transplanted from the plane of scientific and pseudo-scientific folklore to the level of art—extended all over the European continent and lasted for more than three centuries.