blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

Part IV: For Whose Sake?

Why was this monk made? My early questions—who operated this small machine and who would have seen it, how would a spectator in the sixteenth century have interpreted its performance—all hung on the influence of the legend surrounding it. A dying boy, a holy corpse, the bedside miracle, the royal promise, the brilliant clockmaker . . . but we've seen that the story is only an hypothesis, though one with a sure life of its own. The possibility that the monk is a portrait of San Diego de Alcalá, or at least bears some commemorative relation to the saint, is more within reach. But at this point we can't prove it. And if the automaton hardly resembles the contemporary image of the saint (a complaint of José A. García-Diego's), then perhaps he resembles San Diego's remains! He is, himself, now no more than a set of remains, with his cracked paint and clouded eye . . . but like the saint's, an effective set, a working set. Was he made by Juanelo Turriano? It seems that even this must remain a tantalizing conjecture. [55] Whoever made the monk, he certainly wasn't cheering anyone up. I look again at the photographs . . . the other two figures do seem beneficent by comparison, with bell and glockenspiel. Our monk looks emaciated, fierce, dead set. He is not ringing bells. And if the Smithsonian dating is correct, he is made during the great upheaval of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, where definitions of divinity, authority, heresy, and the line between religion and magic were fought with blood.

What kind of a social setting could be appropriate for such an object? By comparison, the lady with the lute might very successfully have made an after-dinner appearance at any number of royal occasions, and drawn a mixture of amazement and delight. There is a long tradition of later automated figures that played musical instruments and imitated other courtly graces. Perhaps the monk was meant for a single viewer, as suggested by the image of Turriano diverting the emperor's declining spirits at San Yuste. Maybe he was to appease the Father Superior, though the simulated act of prayer carries some fearful implications. [56] In posing the question of audience, we enter a complex caste system of potential spectators, from educated to merchant to laboring classes of persons, secular and religious contexts, public and private display. Ultimately I must leave to the historian the task of an informed guess . . . I long for that historian to appear. I think again about those beautifully made hidden levers and cams inside the monk, gestures seen by no one but its maker. One appeal of Father Gieben's theory—that the monk was a votive offering—is that God himself becomes the intended audience. As is the case, ultimately, for the act of prayer the monk mimes. But then I remember that secret lever David Todd pointed out, to permit the winding to be done out of sight.

These were my thoughts when I suddenly discovered an address for Father Servus Gieben. [57] He responded to my letter with miraculous dispatch. Alive and well, the President of the Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini in Rome and the Director of its Museo Francescano, he wrote saying "I certainly will be pleased to read your paper on the 'Mechanical Monk' of which I preserve nice photographs and curious memories." At long last!

Born in the Netherlands in 1924, Servus Gieben entered the Capuchin novitiate in 1942, and was ordained priest in 1949. [58] He completed a PhD at the Università Gregoriana in Rome in 1953, and in the same year was made associate of the Istituto Storico dei Cappuccini, itself founded in Assisi in 1930 and moved to Rome during World War II. The Institute's mandate is the pursuit of scholarly research on the history of the Franciscan Order, and in particular its Capuchin Family, formed during the sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation. Father Gieben was President of the Institute from 1970 to 1977, as he is again at present (since 1999). For 25 years, as a specialist in the depiction and iconography in art history of the lives of the saints, he has been responsible for developing the collections now housed in the Institute's Museo Francescano. He is a scholar of medieval theology and has written in depth on the life and works of the thirteenth-century Oxford scholar Robert Grosseteste, contemporary of Saint Francis. Among Father Gieben's published works are numerous editions of primary manuscripts from the history of Franciscan thought. He is fluent in Dutch, German, French, Italian, English, and Latin.

How did the Father come to perform his research on the small automaton in 1976? I quote his own words, from his letter to me of September 25, 1999:

In the summer of 1975 I was approached by the antiquarian George Sedlmajer from Geneva, who had a problem. Thinking that his monk represented a Jesuit preacher, he had approached the Jesuits in Rome. But they pointed out to him that his automaton was wearing sandals, which was not a Jesuit but a Franciscan fashion. So they sent him on to our Museo Francescano. His letter was accompanied with good photographs. His question was: who is this monk and what is the meaning of his movements. The intense expression of the face convinced me at once that it must be the portrait of a famous preacher or of a Saint, probably a Spanish one. Iconographic indications (cross and rosary, shaved head) pointed to San Diego, a lay brother, not a priest. But I racked my brains for finding a motive that might have caused [the representation of] San Diego in that way. On the 12th of November arrived the feast of San Diego and reading about his life I struck upon the miracle which caused his process of canonization to be completed. The article in Archivo Ibero-Americano 2 (1914) 424-446 depicted, in my opinion, the right setting for the origin of the automaton as an admonition to the unruly young Carlos. I would even like to imagine the Emperor's family sitting around the table, praying with the boy, while the mechanical monk is muttering his prayers and doing his admonishing walking around. I could not think of anybody else who could have made this automaton unless Juanelo Turriano the Emperor's mechanician. Hence my attribution of the monk to him. There is no tradition of this kind of automata in the Franciscan Order and I would exclude that the monk could have been made for the friars.

Several things are striking about Father Gieben's letter. His immediate thought that the figure was a portrait of a particular person: this confirmed my own sense of the individuality of the monk's features. Yet why "probably Spanish?" Had Monsieur Sedlmajer mentioned the Vienna automaton and Turriano in his letter to Father Gieben? I wrote and asked Father Gieben this. He replied that no, Sedlmajer had certainly not indicated any link with another automaton, and he learned of such a connection only from reading the very draft of my essay I had just sent him. At most, Sedlmajer may have suggested a possible sixteenth-century origin for the piece. His opinion that the monk represented a Spanish figure was based on the physiognomy of the carved face, a judgement confirmed by his search through the Museo Francescano print archives and the match, not just with the person of San Diego, but with the saint's symbols, lay status, and gestures (he sent me photographs of the two engravings of San Diego). Father Gieben also mentioned in this reply that he had no idea of how his research was to be used, or of its later consequences in identifying the automaton. [59]

Thus, Servus Gieben arrived at his conclusion without an awareness of the attribution to Juanelo Turriano of any similar automaton figures. His opinion comes not from the history of technology, but from the history of theology. It is significant that these two separate tracks converge upon so close an explanation of the monk's origin.



figure 21

Father Gieben sent me something else: a photograph of a death mask kept in the Church of Santa Maria La Nova, in Naples, identified as being the face of S. Giacomo della Marca, who died in 1475 at the age of 84 (fig. 21). The mask, cast in wax, was a private gift to the Church at the end of the nineteenth century. Could this truly be the face of a man of 84, known to have lost all his teeth, Father Gieben wondered? Noticing a remarkable resemblance to images of San Diego, and to the carved face of the automaton, he allowed himself to speculate on the possibility that the mask could have been used as the model for the automaton. [60]

And if the automaton is a portrait of San Diego, one is tempted to think twice about its repeating gesture with the cross and rosary. It is almost as if the clockmaker meant to acknowledge the miracle of Fray Diego on his deathbed raising a paralyzed left arm to bear the cross aloft. Two inert left arms come to life. [61]

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Part V: Looking at the Monk Now

Table of Contents | Table of Figures | Reading Clockwork Prayer

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