Friday, June 26


From the Archives: Festive Melodies of the Mechanical Organs

I wrote this a long time ago, about a post on another blog a long time ago, but it's fun and about medieval gadgets. Enjoy!

Daniel Mitsui posts about one of the weirder--but really, very plausible--theories out there explaining some of the discrepancies within the monumental polytyptich of Jan and Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It's been a while since I've done art history in a classroom, but if memory serves correctly, the various theories are that

a) the altarpiece was variously designed to fit in a much more monumental Gothic frame crowned with a filigree of spires a la Veit Stoss, which would mean much of the original context which would explain the apparent perspectival oddities in the composition as it stands today, considering panels have since been re-framed and perhaps moved around a bit. One version of this theory has Hubert doing the sculpting work, and reads pictor or "painter," on the frame as fictor, which works out roughly to be "sculptor." Gothic p's and f's tend to be easily confused. Even if you don't buy this particular bit of evidence, the idea that there's some missing crocketry that might have topped the panels is not so hard to believe given most medieval altarpieces were often extravagantly mixed in their media; the inmost layer of Grünewald's famous Isenheim Altarpiece is almost wholly carved woodwork. Also, a similar composition in the Prado clearly dependent on the van Eyck altarpiece includes a superstructure within the painting not unlike that which might have graced the painting in three-dimensional form.

Hubert van Eyck's always been a bit of a cypher in the art world--his tomb's empty, for instance, I think--and there's considerable debate as to who he was and what bits of the great altarpiece he did, despite the dedicatory inscription on the frame hailing him as even more great in skill than his famous brother Jan. In this version of the story, Jan's brother up and died on him and Jan cobbled the thing together out of some organ cases and other bits of work lying around the studio. This would explain some of the apparent iconographic discrepancies--such as depicting God the Father in the deesis where Christ would normally be; however, whether these discrepancies are that unusual for the period, or even exist in reality, is an open question.

c) A variation of the first theory, but which also includes a whole wealth of other bells and whistles, including clockwork devices to turn the panels round, and even a mechanical organ which played when the altarpiece opened. I was initially very skeptical to this wonderfully wild idea, until I remembered that this was the sort of sacred wackiness which the medievals rightly loved. Why shouldn't it be beautiful? It's only our refusal to really let go and enjoy this 'special effect' that taints it with a suggestion of the tawdry music box. I will allow myself to put a digressive plug here to once again highlight the similarities between my beloved baroque and the medieval epoch here in that I will remind you that it is the baroque that often condemned for its apparent theatricality and its symbiotic relationships with stage-sets, but it was the merry medievals that really did the most to mix theater and liturgy together (after all, modern theater grew out of medieval liturgy), often with results that would astonish and perhaps even scandalize people on both sides of the liturgico-political spectrum. I, however, simply lean back and smile to think of most of them; I am unsure if they'd strike the right note today, but perhaps in a better world, we would greet them with the right wonder and charm.

A clockwork organ and rotating panels, by medieval standards, is pretty mild stuff, actually, though it'd explain the bafflingly breathless reports that often accompanied descriptions of this whiz-bang contraption, a Jules Vernean wonder of the sort we only associate with retrofitted clockwork-driven Victorian sci-fi novels. The medievals were actually very good at that sort of thing, and it exemplifies the earthy, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach they took to life. When it comes to liturgical art and liturgy itself, the medievals knew how to have sacred fun, even to the point of skating dangerously close to liturgical abuse at times. Indeed, it is this celebratory liveliness and sense of interlaced symbol and practicality that appeals to me so much in both the worlds of the baroque and those of the Middle Ages. The descendent of the astronomical clock with its rows of dancing dolls is the symbolically dense and unabashedly baroque title page of an Athanasius Kircher book.

Hard scientific development and practical knowhow accompanied both the baroque--in the form of Kircher's gagetry and Galileo's science--and also that of the Middle Ages, whether it was the dull but indispensible staples such as the padded horse-collar, the mill-wheel, or eye-glasses, or the wondrously superfluous in the shape of complex astronomical clocks and other automata. (Indeed, I wonder if some will someday see the Renaissance as an essentially scientifically dead period between the medieval era and the Scientific Revolution--which may have ultimately had its pay-off in the chilly north, but had some very important roots in Jesuitical Rome). Bacon and Albertus Magnus are legendarily credited with building speaking robots of some sort (not impossible with a properly rigged-up keyboard and a bellows), and there are much more real reports of jangling contraptions designed to lower artificial angels into the sanctuary at the elevation of the Host, not to mention a set of clockwork statues of a monarch and his queen (it may have been Isabella the Catholic and Ferdinand) that once stood over their tombs that were designed to stand and kneel in time to the various movements of whatever mass was going on at the high altar of the church.

Distracting? Perhaps. Frivolous? Maybe. But certainly worthy of our wonder in an age oddly starved of it in the name of a sterile and inauthentic authenticity of expression.

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