Miracles and Machines

Elizabeth King, W. David Todd


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Getty Trust Publications
15 August 2023
ISBN: 9781606068397
256 pages

From the publisher

With photographs by Rosamond Purcell

An abundantly illustrated narrative that draws from the history of art, science, technology, artificial intelligence, psychology, religion, and conservation in telling the extraordinary story of a Renaissance robot that prays.
This volume tells the singular story of an uncanny, rare object at the cusp of art and science: a 450-year-old automaton known as “the monk.” The walking, gesticulating figure of a friar, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is among the earliest extant ancestors of the self-propelled robot. According to legend connected to the court of Philip II of Spain, the monk represents a portrait of Diego de Alcalá, a humble Franciscan lay brother whose holy corpse was said to be agent to the miraculous cure of Spain’s crown prince as he lay dying in 1562.

In tracking the origins of the monk and its legend, the authors visited archives, libraries, and museums across the United States and Europe, probing the paradox of a mechanical object performing an apparently spiritual act. They identified seven kindred automata from the same period, which, they argue, form a paradigmatic class of walking “prime movers,” unprecedented in their combination of visual and functional realism. While most of the literature on automata focuses on the Enlightenment, this enthralling narrative journeys back to the late Renaissance, when clockwork machinery was entirely new, foretelling the evolution of artificial life to come. 

Elizabeth King, a sculptor and writer, is professor emerita of sculpture and extended media at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond. W. David Todd is associate curator emeritus and former conservator of timekeeping at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

“By combining the expertise of the art studio and the horological workshop, and aided by the detailed photographs of Rosamond Purcell, the authors bring the automaton to life.”
—Edward Rothstein, The Wall Street Journal

“Now that I have read this book, I understand far more completely the significance of these magical artificial beings, today more than four and a half centuries old.”
—Bob Frishman, Maine Antique Digest

“As demonstrated by this marvellous book, the monk automaton is testament to human ingenuity, craftsmanship and our enduring capacity for wonder.”
—Jacqueline Riding, Country Life