Mechanical Monk

The mechanical monk has been praying for almost five centuries. Held by the Smithsonian Institution, the monk appears to walk in circles, nodding his head, rolling his eyes and moving his mouth in an unheard prayer.

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Commissioned by King Philip II of Spain in the mid-16th Century, this automaton is thought to be the oldest functioning robot in the world. It’s 450 year-old cogs still click along, making the priestly robot move in a ‘clockwork prayer’.

The monk-persona was King Philip’s specific request to its creator, Juanelo Turriano. The King’s son had been ill and, upon the death bed of his child, Philip promised his eternal devotion should his son be saved. When he did in fact recover, Philip commissioned Turriano to create the devout robot.  Seemingly a cheat’s side-step out of the promise, the monk has been described as both a miracle and the work of the devil. Devil worship aside, it is thought more likely that the monk was made in the image of a Spanish Franciscan brother named Didacus of Alcala (the one San Diego is named after). The theory goes that this Catholic saint saved the boy and in return would be venerated eternally by his mechanical counterpart. This fits with the context of the monk’s creation. Rituals and symbols of piety were all the rage again as strong Catholicism spread across Europe in the Counter-Reformation.

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King Philip was a crucial figure in the wars between Protestant Reformers and Catholics. Marrying his cousin, Mary Tudor, he was influential in reinstating Catholicism throughout England. Violent efforts to absolve the kingdom of its divergence from Rome earned Philip’s wife the title of ‘Bloody Mary’. Philip Left England when Mary died and Elizabeth I took the thrown, only to return in the name of Catholicism with his Spanish Armada in tow. The dominating Armada was famously caught in a storm and defeated by the English Fleet.

King Philip was one of the most powerful men of his time. His rule spread across Spain, Portugal, parts of Italy and the Netherlands. The reach of Spanish influence across the globe under Philip is referred to as the kingdom’s Golden Age. Philip had the power to command vast armies, including to their defeat. Yet, the mechanical monk reveals his scramble to find control where he had none.

Turriano’s skill met the king’s demands. With his panache for unreal humanity, Turriano also created a lady playing the lute that is now housed in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum. She is taller (44cm) than the monk (39cm) and with his steely devotion and her playing they would make quite the unlikely pair.

I discovered the monk in an incredibly detailed study by Elizabeth King: http://www.blackbird.vcu.edu/v1n1/nonfiction/king_e/prayer_introduction.htm

You can listen to a great interview with her here:http://www.radiolab.org/story/317902-meet-monkbot/

And also,

Martin Davies and Marsha Meskimmon, Breaking the Disciplines: preconceptions in knowledge, art and culture (London and New York: I.B. Taurus, 2003).

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