Abstracts: Enchanted Environs: Architecture, Automata, and the Art of Mechanical Performance I and II

Enchanted Environs: Architecture, Automata, and the Art of Mechanical Performance I

Sunday, May 13, 2018
Presider: Amy Gillette, Barnes Foundation

Monstrous Machines: Mechanical Wheels of Fortune in Medieval Europe
Oliver Mitchell, Courtauld Institute of Art

Around the year 1100, Breton bishop Balderic of Dol visited Fécamp Abbey in Normandy. He described in the church there a wheel, ‘which by some means unknown to me descended and ascended, rotating continually.’ At first the bishop was uncomprehending, but afterward recognized this remarkable device as the Wheel of Fortune. Not only is the Fécamp automaton among the earliest representations of the Wheel of Fortune in medieval art, but – like other mechanical Wheel of Fortune of the Middle Ages – its creation would have presented its makers with particular hermeneutic problems as well as substantial mechanical difficulties. Documents from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries attest to the existence of such devices in both the permanent settings of churches and royal palaces and the temporary spaces of the pageant and the carnival.

Ceaseless motion was a defining characteristic of Fortune’s wheel. In the Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy chides Boethius for contemplating the prospect of halting Fortune’s wheel: ‘Oh, stupidest of mortals! If it takes to standing still, it ceases to be the Wheel of Fortune!’ (book II, prose I). Even two-dimensional representations of Fortune’s wheel in manuscripts grapple with the mechanical reality of the wheel’s relentless rotation. A functioning three-dimensional model, however, must be expected to engage directly with the motif’s inherent, incessant movement; to be a veritable perpetual motion machine driven by Divine Providence.

Through a selection of case studies, both man-powered and apparently automatic machines, this short paper will explore some of the conceptual problems associated with the functional and performative aspects of mechanical Wheels of Fortune in medieval Europe. It aims to demonstrate both the broad mechanical issues involved in the conception of the Wheel of Fortune more generally and the specific problems associated with the creation of working models of the motif.

“Res Vana sive Misticus Jocus?”: Mechanical Wheels of Fortune and Religious Automata
Vincent Deluz, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte/Université de Genève

The notebook of Villard de Honnecourt, an invaluable manuscript for the history of techniques, is one of the only thirteenth- century medieval sources to contain technical drawings and explanations of the operation of machines and mechanical principles. It includes illustrations and clarifications of the mechanisms of certain automata like, for example, the angel that follows the movement of the sun by pointing its finger at it, the drinking bird or the eagle turning its head while reading sacred texts. Another drawing reproduces a wheel of Fortune, and it is difficult to determine whether it is the illustration of a mechanical wheel surmounted by articulated figurines changing position when the wheel rotates or whether it is a simple schematization of an iconographic theme extremely widespread at the end of the Middle Ages.

The metaphor of instability, represented by Fortune using a wheel and introduced by Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy, became a medieval iconographic theme only at the end of the eleventh century and is a recurring subject in literature from as early as the twelfth century. Shortly after its first appearance, the iconographic theme is represented by means of real mechanical wheels which appear to rotate by themselves, as evidenced by the testimony of the Bishop of Dôle, Baudri de Bourgueil, at the beginning of the twelfth century. Indeed, he saw in the church of Fécamp, in England, a wheel which turned continuously, propelled by a secret artifice. At first, he considered this wheel a “res vana”, a vain thing, understanding only later that it was a “misticus jocus,” a symbolic toy, an automaton illustrating a high moral thought. During the centuries that followed, other mechanical wheels representing Fortune and instability were manufactured to illustrate the allegory, putting mechanical technology to the benefit of Christian piety. The twelfth century’s mechanical wheel of Fortune thus foreshadowed the anthropomorphic automata of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries installed in churches and driven by more and more sophisticated watchmaking mechanisms, which participated in liturgical staging.

This paper will present the use of kinetic art by the Church in favor of religious rituals and will examine the relationship between Christendom and the fathers of the Church in particular and the manufacture and use of automata during the Middle Ages. Is the automaton perceived as a useless gadget or as an allegorical play? It is to be noted that the fascination of artists for technical innovations is precisely illustrated in iconography by the representation of wheels of Fortune that turn by means of a crank and complex gears. Thus, starting from the mechanical wheel and up to the automata of the astronomical clocks, I will focus on the technical systems implemented to operate the religious automata and I will propose a reflection on the influence of Church in the development of applied mechanics and its improvements. This will be the opportunity to put in perspective the eagle preacher of Villard de Honnecourt and the drawing of the wheel of Fortune.

Like Clockwork: Fortune, Time, and Mimetic Mechanism in Guillaume de Machaut’s MS C
Kathleen Wilson Ruffo, University of Toronto; Royal Ontario Museum

The Wheel of Fortune miniature in the most luxurious and probably earliest compilation (BnF, fr. 1586, fol. 30v; siglum: C) of the works of Guillaume de Machaut, the great fourteenth-century court composer, is a curious contraption indeed. Its double-wheel design and riders have certainly triggered some scholarly response, but its otherwise ‘conventional’ appearance seems to shut down more sustained and profound inquiry. But appearances are often misleading. In order to gauge more fully the power of this metaphorical machine and its vital relevance to Machaut’s musico-poetic oeuvre as well as the intended recipients, the future king of France, Jean II, and his wife, Bonne of Luxembourg, we must dismantle iconographic expectations and, in effect, reset this image.

This paper explores how the artist in question, the so-called Remède Master, active in the French court during the 1340s, did precisely that, by re-imagining Fortune’s Wheel in light of two interrelated technologies that increasingly fascinated contemporary poets and also royalty: automata and mechanical clockworks. Generating a new interpretative nexus through which the effects of fortune, the passage of time, and the marvels of mimetic illusion could continually play out, the Remede Master not only reinvented the wheel but also complicated Machaut’s whole musico-poetic compilation. A time-contingent and visual/graphic project – much like the musical notation it contains – this manuscript becomes an assembled, performing ‘contraption’ that animates Machaut’s oeuvre, guarantees the ‘afterlife’ of his poetic corpus long after he is gone, and chimes precisely with the image of Fortune’s Wheel which, in the creative hands of the Remède Master, runs like clockwork.

Enchanted Environs: Architecture, Automata, and the Art of Mechanical Performance II

Sunday, May 13, 2018
Presider: Zachary Stewart, Texas A&M University

The Park of Hesdin and Its Automata under the Early Valois (1384–1404)
Scott Miller, Northwestern University/Université Paris 8

The mechanized games and engines of the Park of Hesdin in Artois are among the best-known automata of the Middle Ages. Published English-language research on the site has focused on the park’s inception in the 1290s under Robert II of Artois and on a single record of repair to the castle’s “gloriette” dated to 1432, during the reign of Philip the Good of Burgundy. The development of the park during the intervening fourteenth century, however, has not received sustained scholarly attention, leading modern scholars to suggest that the park and its automata fell into partial ruin during this period. Further distorting modern interpretations of the park and its mechanisms, archivally-based scholars rarely conduct thorough research on site and remain unaware of the traces of massive, architecturally-significant ruins of castle, moat, city walls, park pales, and garden features that persist in the modern landscape. To name one instance, Anne Hagophian van Buren’s 1986 map of Hesdin was drawn entirely from aerial photographs and mistakenly interprets an international freight rail as a medieval pathway through the park. She furthermore localizes water features, including the one associated with the automata-laden “pavilion du marais,” in places in the landscape where no vestiges of medieval pools are currently visible.

Drawing from two uninterrupted years of daily research in original source materials in Lille and Dijon and several field expeditions to the site, my paper will revise our received narrative for the development of the park by presenting two bodies of new evidence: currently-preserved park features and archival documents dated to the rule of Margaret of Flanders and Philip the Bold, ca. 1384-1405. Analyzing archaeological vestiges helps us to localize medieval features more precisely and deduce the internal logic of the park’s layout. Late fourteenth-century archival documents demonstrate that Hesdin, far from witnessing a period of benign neglect during the lifetime of Philip the Bold and Margaret of Flanders, underwent a period of preservation and addition which embroidered upon the works begun by Robert II of Artois. Surviving documents include records of reconstruction of the castle, investments in park infrastructure, payrolls for Pierre du Bois and Huchon de Boulogne, the two maistres des engiens d’esbatements who maintained the park’s automata, and records of construction at the “pavillion entrée les eyeaus” (pavilion between the waters), the maison de Daedalus, and the gloriette. Further mentions of the site in ducal itineraries and in records of preparations for meetings between the duke of Burgundy, the King of France, and the King of England demonstrate that the Park of Hesdin and its automata, along with the vision of chivalric aristocratic identity that they manifested, exerted a massive pull on the duke and duchess, who placed the park at the nexus of their strategies of itinerancy and geopolitics.

Space, Light, and Liturgical Plays as Sources of Inspiration for Late Gothic Altarpieces
Johannes Tripps, Hochschule für Technik, Wirtschaft und Kultur Leipzig

In the period that Jan Huizinga characterized as “The Waning of the Middle Ages,” courts, towns, and monasteries tried to outdo each other in sumptuous ecclesiastical festivities and worldly pageantries. Many altarpieces of this time are endowed with unbelievable effects of illusion that crossed the boundaries between liturgy and sacred theater. The aim of my contribution is to present findings collected on a case by case basis over many years and to discuss the reasons of their stage-like constructions.

Late Medieval Angel Machines
Amy Gillette, Barnes Foundation

In the late medieval period, mechanized figures of angels enlivened devices such as clocks and pulley systems, courtly and civic spectacles, and liturgical and paraliturgical performances. This paper surveys their occurrences, spotlighting one angel machine per category. Villard d’Honnecourt, for example, drew a design in the mid-1200s for “how to make [a statue of] an angel point its finger always toward the sun” (“Par chu fait on un ange tenir son doit ades vers le solel”), indicating the motion of this celestial body. In 1377, London goldsmiths created a golden angel automaton to crown King Richard II in a public ceremony on the city streets (Anonimalle Chronicle, Historia Anglicana, and Piers Plowman). Sometimes angel machines imaged forth the incursions of actual angels into the liturgy: e.g., a set of them at Kings Lynn St. Margaret evidently descended from the roof to the high altar at the elevation of the Host and retracted “at the end of the chant” (Testamenta eboracensia #102, 1502). Akin in execution and apparently rampant were the “Paradise machines” built for the paraliturgical mystery plays held in churches and public spaces throughout Latin Christendom. In 1439, for instance, a Russian bishop attending the Ecumenical Council of Florence described an “inexpressibly beautiful” and angelically rich Annunciation play in S. Felice, staged from a scaffold “meant to represent the heavenly spheres” erected over its entrance:

The curtains of the upper scaffold open and from there comes a volley of shots imitating Heaven’s thunder… Up on the scaffold is God the Father surrounded by more than five hundred burning lamps which revolve continually, going up and down. Children dressed in white, representing the angels, surround him, one striking the cymbals, other playing flutes or citterns in a scene of joyful and inexpressible beauty. After some time, the angel sent by God descends on two ropes…to announce the conception of the Son. The angel [looks] exactly as celestial angels are to be seen in paintings (Acta slavica consilii florentini).

Throughout the paper, I explore how each mechanism might have looked and functioned–per se and in its built environment–by assessing the types and uses of evidence available, such as texts, sketches, paintings, extant devices from the early modern period, and architectural clues. Also, given that angel machines were exclusive to West after ca. 1200, I contextualize them in their wider intellectual and material history, building on scholarship by Jean Gimpel, Scott Lightsey, Elly Truitt, Minsoo Kang, and others concerning machines in the Hellenistic, Byzantine, Islamic, and Western worlds. It seems that shared traditions of technology, when joined to Western priorities of representation for various sacred and secular settings, engendered the dramatic reification of angels’ roles as messengers, mechanics of the cosmos, sources of comfort, and apparitions of celestial bliss. Angels, and their images by proxy, were historically held to be spiritually exemplary and good devices for investigating the sub- and superlunary; angel machines were a late but consummate expression of applied angelology.

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