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.
James & Terri