Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Time Machines in Ecclesiastical Space

The Production of Sacral Times in the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

Michael Dengler


Late Medieval and Early Modern monumental “astronomical clocks” were spectacles in the church’s space. They were considered astonishing objects in which function and illusion, goal and play, magic, astronomy, and faith, were interconnected in a complex manner.

But in fact these monumental constructions, integrated architectonically into the church-spaces of the Old Empire, were no simple “clocks,” but rather complex time machines indicating a wide range of things and seeing to the performative  production and representation of highly disparate times. These time machines produced astronomical and calendrical times as well as those of politics and salvational history—in the end even eternity itself. Especially the sacral times of salvational history were presented as automatized and mechanically manufactured times in the form of figural cycles and automatized figures. In many of these church spaces, the three holy kings clattered past the mother of God, in others Christ and death appeared as figures struggling for rule over a bell, accompanied by the crowing of a rooster or blowing of an angel’s trumpet. The machines only revealed their effects through a linkage between architecture and mechanics in the church’s space. As time machines, they united the most disparate times—from the minute to eternity—in an architectonic place, presented them in their synchronicity, and rendered them capable of being visually and acoustically experienced as a simultaneous presence. In this way they made possible an experiencing of past and future times, while also offering a mechanization of the sacral as a spectacular feat of staging. Both the eye and ear were here presented with an automatized and as it were programmed and programmable salvational event. Like other Early Modern machines, these time machines were both functional and useful; but above all they were playful, mysterious, and magical-sacral—thus constituting first of all a spectacle in the church’s space.

Starting in the middle ages, the sacral was always localized in the context of its countability and reducibility to mathematics, together with its capacity for mechanization. In the late medieval and early modern period, the sacral and mechanical, piety and technique, were no opposites, rather even entering into a symbiotic relationship in certain constellations. As complex configurations of text, image, tone, and number, the time machines represent suitable objects for tying together perspectives oriented toward the histories of science and religion, thus gaining an overview of the mutual relationship between the technical and discursive, the conic and the symbolic, within which cultures originate and duplicate themselves.

Along with the above-outlined analysis of time machines in ecclesiastical space, the dissertation project will focus on the space-time configuration of the late medieval and early modern church-building. In that period’s cities, the church’s architectural space was a special sort of “time-space.” It was marked by sundials on the building’s outside, hourglasses on the pulpit, and both interior and exterior mechanical and other clocks—and by the architectonic presentation of sacral and profane times and confessionally specific forms of divine presence.

In the late medieval and early modern church building of the slowly emerging confessional cultures, sacral and profane times were culturally produced and displayed through both spatialization and performance, which we need to understand as mutually determined modes.