Papamoscas on the Job: It’s about time!

Like all Gothic churches in Spain, the Burgos Cathedral has soaring vaults, sturdy flying buttresses, and lavish chapels with saints, angels, and demons.

But this cathedral has one unique feature that you won’t see anywhere else: the grinning, bell-ringing, automaton timekeeper Papamoscas.

Papamoscas’ maniacal grin looks like a cross between the Cheshire Cat and Batman’s famous nemesis the Riddler. Admittedly, he looks a bit out of place inside this ornate house of soaring angels and gilded saints, but he’s earned his place because he’s been on the job since the 16th Century, faithfully ringing the time each hour.

His name means “flycatcher,” which is a patient, admirably lazy bird which sits quietly with its mouth open waiting for the flies to buzz in. I didn’t see any flies in the cavernous church, but what I did see was tour groups buzzing and jostling at the top of each hour to catch his act.

This clockwork caricature may seem like nothing more than a Medieval novelty, but at a time when machines were virtually non-existent, imagine how wondrous and entrancing this mechanical marvel must have been. The Catholic Church gets full marks for their P. T. Barnum approach to getting people in the pews.

And despite appearances, he wasn’t just a fun spectacle. His clanging bell was all about keeping time. In the 16th Century, knowing the hour of the day was a relatively new concept, and because Christian monks had a tight schedule of work and prayer, they were some of the first timekeepers in Medieval Europe. The idea of knowing the time slowly caught on, and the bell’s toll became a part of daily life for the entire town. Essentially, the church bells and the mechanical clock became the monitor of the working day.

You’ll notice that, like modern clocks, Papamoscas’ clock has a minute hand. In our world where precision timekeeping is a given, it’s hard to fathom, but the minute, as a measurement of time, didn’t exist until the late 16th Century.

I’ve always been fascinated by the “firsts” in human history, and the invention of the clock and the measurement of time was certainly a technological milestone (that some might argue still haunts us today). Physicists and philosophers have labored to explain time and our concept of it, but Papamoscas is a good reminder that for much of our history, we didn’t even keep track. With his chomp-chomp grin and his dinging bell he reminds us that time wasn’t always of the essence, and sometimes it was just a matter of perspective.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri



We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

59 thoughts

  1. Thanks for sharing the story and images of Papamoscas! I don’t remember learning about this little Cheshire-like character when I passed through Burgos. But wow, what a cathedral. (Apropos, I’m on a little TIME-break – from finishing up my Camino memoir.. finally!) Hope you are both well.

    1. Amit, if you remember, there are two entrances into the cathedral: one for tourists (pictured in our collage of photos) and one for locals going in for prayer. And understandably, the area for prayer is closed off to tourists. Papamoscas is high on the wall inside the entrance hall in the locals’ area. It’s an odd location, and with all the other art, statues, etc, he’s of easy to miss. We are well thanks and best of luck with the memoir. ~James

    1. Tracey, Papamoscas’ history is a bit strange and goes back to a tale of unrequited love. And apparently, in addition to ringing the bell, at some point in the past he had a blood-curdling scream as well – and all inside a Catholic church. ~James

    1. Fi, as I said in another comment, the history goes back to a tale of unrequited love. What this has to do with this menacing-looking character, I have no idea. But, it’s not the first time that something has shown up in a church that I don’t understand. ~James

      1. Beth, Burgos isn’t on the well-worn tourist path, but it’s a very pleasant city and well worth a visit. In addition to the cathedral, the Camino de Santiago goes right through town and they have a fabulous riverwalk. I hope you can make it. ~James

    1. Ray and Alie, I like your translation. Maybe it should be “Lord of the Flies.” 🙂 I looked all over for a video of the bird in action but couldn’t fine one. That’s my kind of bird … just sit and wait for food to fly into your mouth. ~James

  2. I love how many cathedrals across Europe have their own iconic characters, including Papamoscas in Burgos. Speaking of firsts, it also fascinates me to learn about the firsts in human history. Sometimes the things we thought were firsts, were actually a reinvention of similar ideas that had existed centuries earlier, forgotten and lost along with the demise of the civilizations that created them.

    1. You’re right Bama. When it comes to “firsts,” there are the ones that we know about, and the ones that have yet to be discovered. I’ve just finished an interesting book that you would enjoy called “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari. There are lots and lots of firsts in human history in this wonderful book. For instance, the “Lion-Goddess from the Stadel Caves in Germany. It’s one of the first indisputable examples of art, and probably religion. Very cool – check it out:


  3. What a fascinating post! It’s odd to think that the concept of time had to be invented. Regulating your life by the daylight available would be quite challenging, especially at far northern or southern latitudes!

    1. Marilyn, I love concepts that challenge my perceptions, and time is one of them. We are so obsessed with time today (at least in the west), it’s interesting to note that for much of human history, our ability to “keep” time is only the very tiniest tip of the iceberg of our history. And after all your time in Mexico, you certainly know that “mañana time” is totally different that time north of the border. I sometimes think about this when I’m stressed about running late. ~James

    1. Darlene, if you’re in northern Spain, Burgos is definitely worth a stop. In addition to the cathedral, the historic center is compact and interesting, and they have a wonderful river walk. And of course, don’t miss Papamoscas. ~James

  4. Papamoscas is a first for me as well. Someone at the church back then certainly had a sense of humour. I wonder if the towns people were outraged by the appearance of this ‘devilish’ character on their church wall.

    1. Carol, the Catholic Church was a powerful force in the Middle Ages, and people were superstitious as well. So I suspect that the appearance of a menacing machine like Papamocas probably scared the bejesus out of them. ~James

  5. Fascinating Cathedral…one for my wishlist, when I visit I will have to go hunting for the Papamoscas…so interesting to hear about the history behind this strange figure. In Portuguese, the name Papamoscas would translate “fly eater”, it must have a Latin origin? Thanks for a very interesting post 🙂

    1. Gilda, Burgos is easily accessible from the UK and would make a dandy combo with Bilbao. There are cheap flights to Bilbao, which is also nice, and it’s a short bus ride to Burgos. The cathedral there was one of our favorites and the town is very pleasant. I’m sure Papamoscas will be waiting patiently for your arrival. BTW, love the new avatar. ~James

  6. Gorgeous church and fascinating story about the timepiece (I like to learn about firsts in history also). I have to say I find Papamoscas a bit demonic, not quite what one would expect inside a church, but I’ve found all sorts of incongruous things in houses of worship in our travels!

    1. Lexie, most churches today have been gentrified so as not to offend anyone, but not so in the Middle Ages. In those days it was all about raising funds, and whether it was buying chapels, indulgences, or a sainthood, if you had the money, it was all good. I’m not sure that Papamoscas’ whole story is known, but you can bet there was money involved. But, no judgement here. I think he’s way cool. ~James

  7. Loved this post, James and Terri, and once again I’m so happy that we live right next to Spain so that I can note the Burgos Cathedral down for a future visit! Papamoscas seems out of place and totally unexpected (almost like finding a fun house clown sitting by the priest) in the Cathedral among the saints and angels. I can only imagine the wonder though, of the people who would have come to see this marvelous mechanical invention and even learn about the concept of timekeeping divided into hours and minutes. Fascinating! Anita

    1. Anita, Salamanca, Burgos, and Bilbao would make a nice northern Spain trip for you guys. They’re relatively close together, all different, and easily accessible by bus and train. And the cathedrals in Salamanca and Burgos peg the wow-meter. As to Papamoscas, he was just too interesting not to write about. As a scientist, I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of time, and as a lover of human history, I’m also interested in its place in our culture. Papamoscas just pulled it all together. ~James

    1. It was all this stargazing that got humans interested in time in the first place. Imagine the painstaking observations that were needed hundreds of years ago to keep track of time. It took lots of patience … and time. ~James

    1. Curt, I wonder if the clockmaker knew that he was letting the genie out of the bottle? If he did, maybe the huge grin is a reminder that: “You guys wanted this, now deal with it.” Me, I like those Medieval clocks with only an hour hand. ~James

      1. You’re right Curt. In Africa, their concept of time is totally different. When I worked there, I had a crew in the field that got paid even when they were broken down. So convincing one of the locals of how important it was to get some machine part to the field was tough. ~James

  8. What a lovely post. Not surprisingly I’ve not heard of Papamoscas. I must admit I’m with Curt though – I’m not so sure the invention of time is such a blessing. Imagine how much less stressed we would be if we lived intuitively.

    1. That sounds good Alison, but I think that horse has left the barn. I remember my university psychology classes about sensory deprivation experiments where the subjects have no idea of the time, and there were all sorts of weird side effects. It would be interesting to know how someone from the Middle Ages would react. ~James

  9. What a timepiece! It’s a bit creepy that Papamoscas snaps his mouth each time he pulls the “trigger”, but fascinating nonetheless. Back in the 16th century, who would have thought that time and keeping time would play such an important role in the current centuries. As another first, where do you think the phrase “Time is money?” comes from? Must be a 20th century sentiment, invented in a “rich” country.

    I don’t have a watch (nor a phone), and never had one. When I lived on a sailboat, I lived with the sun (I liked this going back to the basics approach), and, on shore, when I needed to know the time in case I was meeting someone, I would ask someone else, or look at a church clock, especially in Europe. Now, living a semi-settled life, I feel time has become more important again and I check my Fitbit to find out how late it is. I can’t wait to go back to a lifestyle where time is less important again, though. Rush, stress and speed reduce our enjoyment in life.

    1. No watch, no phone!! Liesbet, I suspect there are lots of readers out there that admire you lifestyle and are envious. But they probably also wonder how you do it. Most people (me included) are tied into watches and phones and would probably have withdrawal symptoms if we went cold turkey. And I’m not sure to how to say this without sounding selfish, but time isn’t a problem when it’s my idea and my schedule. It’s when someone else pulls the strings that worry and stress enter the picture.

      As to “Time is money,” I thought it might go back to the Middle Ages when merchants and tradesmen realized that workers got paid by not how hard they worked, but how long. However, after a google search, it seems that the concept has been around since the Greeks, but Ol’ Ben Franklin was the first person to use that exact phrase. Thanks for the question, because that’s some good trivia right there. ~James

      1. Thanks for looking into that and providing the answer, James! And, I agree, selfish or not, that stress (and annoyance) usually comes into play when other people are involved – whether it is us waiting for them (respecting their time more than ours), or dealing with consumer issues and products. But, that is another story. Not selfish at all, just common sense and understanding in my opinion. 🙂

  10. Time is probably the most valuable of all resources. I suppose it was inevitable that the human race would find a way to measure it. Mr. Papamoscas is tribute to that. Lovely post, and happy trails!

    1. Joe, observing and tracking the heavens started it all I guess. In those days it was all about predicting the rains and harvest, and most importantly, the food supply. But from the standpoint of human history, the interesting thing is how we’ve continued to measure in smaller and smaller increments. Try explaining a second to a Bushman in the Kalahari, let alone a nanosecond. ~James

  11. As so often I love these details you find along the way. You would be a natural for Atlas Obscura James.
    It is phenomenally think that all these ventures this wee fellow has been keeping time. Fascinating find. Maybe the Riddler was based on this time keeper!

    1. Sue, funny you should mention Atlas Obscura. I know the website and they have a new book that I just checked out of the library. I love just paging through it to see the weird and wonderful things scattered around the globe. Papamoscas was indeed a great find. I still wonder about him being inside the church instead outside. ~James

      1. James I don’t know if you are interested but I have contributed additions to Atlas Obscura which then link back to my site. I can’t think of anyone who finds more obscure things than you. 🙂

    1. Hey Carla. Yes, we just got back from a trip to Ireland and Belgium. We had visited each place years ago, but it was great to go back to visit some old favorites and a few new ones. This post came from our trip to Spain in the spring. ~James

    1. Rusha, I love finding these little-known and interesting links to our past, and I particularly like blogging about them. There are few things more intertwined with our psyches than time, and thinking about our changing concept of it is fascinating to me. ~James

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