"Melencolia" is an allegory describing the creative melancholy of the artist and it is alleged to be a symbolic self portrait. Melencolia is replete with alchemical symbolism that is related directly to symbolism in "The Unknown Masterpiece."
Picasso was a admirer of Dürer and owned at least one original print by him; he also possessed an expensive German edition of reproductions of Dürer's work.
Dürer's theme of Saturnalian Melancholy is said to be derived from a treatise entitled 'De occulta philosophia, " written around 1510, by the German physician and occultist, Heinrich von Nettesham,
Since classical times Melencolia was thought of as a depressed state of mind which takes away an artist's enthusiasm for his work. It's cure was believed by Renaissance astrologers to be aided by the charm of a Jupiter magic square. Such a charm appears in the upper right hand corner of Dürer's engraving. The square, is magic, because each row, column and diagonal, add up to the number 34. The numerals 3 and 4 denoting special importance in Alchemy because they represent the goal of the alchemist. 3 symbolizes the limited, finite sphere of the physical world and everyday existence and 4 symbolizes the infinite sphere of the spirit and heaven. In turn, their product, 12, is the number of the Hanged Man, in the Tarot, which symbolizes, again, the union of the physical and spiritual planes.
The number 34 is relevant to "The Unknown Masterpiece" because it refers the year it was made, 1934, and to its predominant theme of Crucifixion and the symbolism of the Hanged Man.
In Melencolia, Dürer incorporated the engraving's date, 1514, in the lower row of numbers in his magic square.
Similarly, Picasso hid the date of production into "The Unknown Masterpiece." The digits '34' appear in many places within the black ink of the composition, but are only visible under magnification or computer enhancement.
The square format of "The Unknown Masterpiece" is rare in Picasso's work, it appears to signify that the drawing is itself a magic square, intended to charm away the melancholy which was affecting Picasso's life at the time.
A number of similar esoteric elements in "The Unknown Masterpiece" have been borrowed from Dürer's Melencolia. In both compositions, for example, there is a concealed reference to the squaring of a circle. In the lower left corner of Dürer's work, is a circle in the form of a globe, in the upper left corner, is a semi-circle in the form of a rainbow, and in the upper right corner, is a quarter circle defined by a bell rope. In the lower right corner, the circle reference disappears altogether, thereby breaking the sequence. This is a circle being halved systematically through three corners of the frame of a squared, or four cornered, composition which finally disappears. In "The Unknown Masterpiece," we find an identical process taking place. In the upper left corner is a circle in the form of a spiral , in the upper right corner is a semi circle in the form of a black half moon. In the lower right corner is a quarter circle painted in wash. Finally, in the lower left corner all traces of the reducing circle disappear, again, breaking the sequence. The symbolism indicates liberation or transcendence from melancholy and it is strongly indicative of death and resurrection.
The two pictures also contain similar iconography, in each there is a dog, a ladder, two angels, the tools of the artist's trade: paints and a brush in the Picasso and woodworking tools in the Dürer. All this leaves little doubt that Dürer's great alchemical engraving, was an important source in the creation of "The Unknown Masterpiece."