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Through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, cathedrals across Europe filled with mechanical angels and clanking, smoke-belching demons.

Jessica Riskin explored the history of these Enlightenment automatons in her paper Machines in the Garden. Initially, the church's interest in mechanics and clockworks was connected to its need to tell precisely when feat days began and ended. "The Catholic Church was the cradle of the clockwork universe and its mechanical inhabitants. In the interest of calendar reform and of accurate predictions of feast days, the church sponsored both the astronomy and the technology of timekeeping. And the church also promulgated, in association with clockwork, the plurality of early modern mechanical images of people and animals."

The earliest automatons were connected to church organs, powered by the air escaping the pipes when they were played, or bell towers, acting out small scenes whenever the hour struck. Soon, church leaders made the automatons the main attraction, novelties to bring people into the church.

Riskin says, "A mechanical Christ on a crucifix, known as the Rood of Grace, drew great flocks of pilgrims to Boxley Abbey in Kent during the fifteenth century. This Jesus, which operated at Easter and the Ascension, 'was made to move the eyes and lipps by stringes of hair.' Moreover, the Rood was able to "bow down and lifte up it selfe, to shake and stirre the handes and feete, to nod the head, to rolle the eies, to wag the chaps, to bende the browes, and finally to represent to the eie, both the proper motion of each member of the body.'

And if a mechanical Jesus brought people into the church, mechanical devils could make sure they behaved after they'd left. "Poised in sacristies, they made horrible faces, howled and stuck out their tongues to instill fear in the hearts of sinners. The Satan-machines rolled their eyes and flailed their arms and wings; some even had moveable horns and crowns. A muscular, crank-operated devil with sharply pointed ears and wild eyes remains in residence at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan." (pictured)

At the same time, however, the Protestant Reformation was moving across Europe, in part as a reaction against the excess and spectacle of the Catholic mass. The Protestants ire was raised by the automatons, which they considered sacrilegious and encouraging idolatry. "The Reformation cast a partial hush over the humming, groaning, chirping, whistling, chattering ecclesiastical machinery. The uncouth Bretzelmann of Strasbourg Cathedral was silenced along with many of his fellow organ-automata and, indeed, with many of the church organs themselves, which became emblematic of Catholic ritual. Henry VIII, in establishing the Anglican Church, banned mechanical statues from English churches. The grimacing Rood of Boxley Abbey gave its last performance in 1538, after being snatched from Boxley by Geoffrey Chamber as part of his commissioned defacement of the abbey."

Chamber took the mechanical Christ to Maidstone where it was burned. Other automatons were burned or destroyed as well, or once they fell out of fashion, simply carried up to attics and left to rot. I'll take a closer look at one of the few surviving automatons next week.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 17th, 2011 01:16 pm (UTC)
This is AWESOME!!
May. 18th, 2011 05:59 am (UTC)
I know. I really want to make a pilgrimage to Castello Sforzesco, if only they'd let me play with their mechanical devil some.
May. 17th, 2011 05:43 pm (UTC)
this was neat!
May. 18th, 2011 06:03 am (UTC)
Very. And there's a part two coming next week.
May. 17th, 2011 08:18 pm (UTC)
There has got to be a horror story here- "The Burning of the Automatons"!
May. 18th, 2011 06:02 am (UTC)
I'm already working some things out in my mind.
May. 18th, 2011 07:18 am (UTC)
Mwu ha ha! :)
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )