Automaton clock in the form of Diana on her chariot (1610) (gif by the author via Yale University Art Gallery/YouTube)

From the 16th to 19th century, clockmaking in Europe saw increasingly elaborate marriages of interior mechanics and exterior design. Along with towering pendulum clocks and tiny, intricate pocket watches, clocks became something like a form of entertainment. Automatons of Roman gods, animals, and celestial globes were especially popular for Northern European nobility, who acquired them from the meticulous creators in Augsburg, Bavaria.

The Luxury of Time: European Clocks and Watches at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a one-room exhibition showcasing some of the most beautiful horological art from the museum’s collections, as well as a stunning visitor: an automaton clock of Diana on her chariot on loan from Yale University Art Gallery. Made in 1610, the clock features the Roman goddess of the hunt seated on an incredible construction of gilded bronze, silver, and ebony, her metal and wood chariot pulled by two leopards. When the device was wound, the clock would move across the table, with the leopards leaping, a bird on the back moving forward, a monkey along for the ride eating an apple, and the eyes in Diana’s head shifting back and forth. As the grand finale, her metal finger would launch an arrow from her bow. (You can watch the whole sequence in the video from Yale below.)

These chariot clocks were a popular form of dinner entertainment for the elite. According to Yale University Art Gallery, the Diana automaton was recently recovered from storage and restored, and although it remains static in its case at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you can watch it move in a video alongside. Nearby are other examples of automata, such as a pegasus carrying a celestial sphere from 1579, a standing lion from 1620–35 whose eyes and mouth move on the hour, and a Madonna and Child from 1620 in which the female figure holds a scepter that points to her crown, which acts as a clock dial.

Exhibitions that focus on decorative arts often don’t demonstrate the way they were actually used by the people who owned them. The Luxury of Time is alive with the sounds of ticking and chimes, reflecting the kinetic life contained in the stunning timepieces, each a marvel of both engineering and art.

Automaton clock in the form of Diana on her chariot (1610, Germany), gilded bronze and silver; case: ebony and gilded bronze; dials: partly enameled silver; movement: iron and brass (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Automaton clock in the form of a lion (1620–35, Germany), clockmaker: Karl Schmidt; case: gilded brass and gilded silver on a base of ebony, and ebony veneered on fruitwood; dial: silvered brass

Longcase astronomical regulator (detail) (1768–70, France); clockmaker: Ferdinand Berthoud; case maker: Balthazar Lieutaud; modeler: Mounts probably cast from models by Philippe II Caffieri; case: oak veneered with ebony and brass, with gilt-bronze mounts; dial: white enamel; movement: gilded brass and steel; height: 90 1/2 in. (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982)

Automaton clock in the form of the Madonna and Child (1620–25, Germany), clockmaker: Nikolaus Schmidt the Elder; case: gilded brass, silver, and ebony veneered on oak; movement: brass and iron

Astronomical table clock (1568, Germany), maker: Movement probably by Jeremias Metzger; maker: Signed by Caspar Behaim (Chasparus Bohemus); case and dials: gilded brass; movement: iron post and frame; 14 1/4 by 8 1/4 by 5 3/4 in. (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Clock (Pendule à Console) (detail) (1720–23, France), movement: Louis Mÿnüel; case: attributed to Charles Cressent; case: oak veneered with brass and tortoiseshell with gilded-bronze mounts; dial: gilded brass and enamel

Celestial globe with clockwork (1579, Vienna), maker: Gerhard Emmoser; case: partly gilded silver and gilded brass; movement: brass and steel; overall: 10 3/4 by 8 by 7 1/2 in. (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Mantel clock (“Pendule Clio”) (1766–70, France), clockmakers: Jean-André Lepaute and Jean-Baptiste Lepaute; case: patinated and gilded bronze, and patinated copper (?); dial: white enamel; movement: brass and steel

Installation view of ‘The Luxury of Time’

Pair-case watch with quarter repeating mechanism (1719–20), watchmaker: George Graham; outer case, inner case, and champlevé dial: gold; movement: gilded brass and partly blued steel (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Captain Newton H. White Jr. U.S.N., 1952)

Mantel clock frame (1870, Britain), designer: Bruce J. Talbert; manufacturer: Hart, Son, Peard & Co.; wrought brass, inset with cabochons and quartz

Mantel clock (1780–90,France), clockmaker: Jean-Baptiste Lepaute; figures modeled by Augustin Pajou; figures cast by Étienne Martincourt; gilt bronze, marble, enamel; overall: 37 by 41 by 12 1/2 in., 379 lb. (courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Installation view of ‘The Luxury of Time’

The Luxury of Time: European Clocks and Watches continues through March 27, 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...