Thing Thursday: Millenium Clock Tower

Over the weekend I was working on a portion of my novel that revolves around an enchanted clock, and remembered that I had photos from a visit to the National Museum of Scotland back in early 2003 buried somewhere. Now I know why I dragged that box full of photos, old greeting cards and postcards on one international move and one transcontinental move. Which brings us to this week’s Thing Thursday – the Millennium Clock Tower.

A slightly blurry image from an old film photo, unfortunately. The entire clock reaches up two storeys in the foyer of the Museum, and its distressed wooden frame is filled with pendulums, wheels, cogs and a myriad of fascinating beasts and creatures. In this image, you can make out one of the mischievous monkeys in amongst the clock workings, and above, wizened figures from the Requiem that each represent one of the twelve months and one of the hardships faced by humanity. Elsewhere, there are figures of Death, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin, and a Pietà. You can read more about the scheme on the Museum’s website.

I spent the better part of an hour wandering around the clock when I visited, examining all the figures and marveling at the clock’s mechanisms. I was about to start my Honours year at University in Medieval Studies, and the medieval influences on the work are unmistakeable in its allegorical figures and mastery of the grotesque.

There’s an ongoing debate in medieval Art History circles about role of grotesques in sacred art and architecture, one that stretches back to St Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apologia in which he demands to know,

“what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns?”

The reactions of the crowd who wandered about the clock perhaps reveal something of the motivation behind the use of the grotesque in the medieval period. The way the viewer would be drawn in, amused by a monkey winding a wheel, or morbidly fascinated by the skeletal form of Death, and then encounter the sombre figures that represented the greatest evils of the twentieth century, pause and contemplate the deeper meaning of the work. Rather than being mere decorative whimsies of questionable appropriateness for a sacred space, the clock suggested to me that grotesques were deployed very deliberately to direct the attention of viewers, to manipulate the propensity for the mind to wander and redirect it toward appropriate contemplation .

Certainly, the clock with its grotesques lodged somewhere deep in my mind, to resurface years later in my writing process.

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~ by medievalness on October 20, 2011.

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