blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1

NONFICTION

ELIZABETH KING

Clockwork Prayer: A Sixteenth-Century Mechanical Monk

"El movimiento se demuestra andando," we say in Spanish: You demonstrate movement by moving.
Carlos Fuentes
[1]

Introduction

 
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video detail

In the Smithsonian Institution is a sixteenth-century automaton of a monk, made of wood and iron, 15 inches in height. Driven by a key-wound spring, the monk walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. After over 400 years, he remains in good working order. Tradition attributes his manufacture to one Juanelo Turriano, mechanician to Emperor Charles V. The story is told that the emperor's son King Philip II, praying at the bedside of a dying son of his own, promised a miracle for a miracle, if his child be spared. And when the child did indeed recover, Philip kept his bargain by having Turriano construct a miniature penitent homunculus. Looking at this object in the museum today, one wonders: what did a person see and believe who witnessed it in motion in 1560? The uninterrupted repetitive gestures, to us the dead giveaway of a robot, correspond exactly in this case to the movements of disciplined prayer and trance.

 

figure 1

 

In the history of European clock technology, the monk is an early and very rare example of a self-acting automaton, one whose mechanism is wholly contained and hidden within its body. Its uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata: it is not charming, it is not a toy, it is "fearfully and wonderfully made," and it engages even the twentieth-century viewer in a complicated and urgent way. [2] It has duende, the dark spirit Federico García Lorca described. [3] Myself a sculptor, negotiating competing ways of representing human substance and spirit, I wanted to know more about this hypnotic object, and the legend connected to it.

 

 

 

figure 2

The monk had arrived in Washington via Geneva in 1977, into the care of Smithsonian Conservator W. David Todd, who has made an extensive study of its mechanism. Conversations over time with Mr. Todd, together with research of my own, have helped me learn a little more about the monk. [4] I began with these primary questions: Could I confirm the story about how the monk came to be made (a story David Todd told me one day on the telephone in response to my early queries)? And if so, what was the nature of King Philip's commission for it? Who was Juanelo Turriano, and how unique was this little artificial man in terms of the mechanical arts of the time? Where was the line between religion and magic in such an object? What can be said about it within the context of sixteenth-century Catholicism, but also sixteenth-century science and alchemy? How was the monk used once it was made, who operated it and who would have seen it? Above all, how was it seen, and what beliefs might have been crucial to its effect on spectators? This essay narrates the chronology of my search for answers to these questions. I am not a historian, and I have preferred to let the search itself be visible as a part of my subject. Driven as much by the physical presence of the monk as by the legend of the bedside promise, this work is ultimately an artist's homage to the human attempt to model an act of the spirit.  

 


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