Time is of the essence

Exhibit: The Walters' small show of the early Melanchthon watch and other intriguing items is full of fascinating information.

January 25, 2001|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the years before his death in 1931, Baltimore railroad magnate Henry Walters spent more than a million dollars a year to acquire the magnificent collection of artworks known today as the Walters Art Museum.

So feverishly did Walters pursue his passion for collecting that it is probable even he was unaware of all the treasures he had amassed.

Recently, one of those unrecognized masterpieces was rediscovered: It is an antique German watch, dating from the first half of the 16th century, that once belonged to a colleague of the great religious reformer Martin Luther and is now the centerpiece of a delightful little exhibit on the first-floor landing of the museum's 1907 building.

Called Melanchthon's watch after its owner, Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), a Protestant reformer, scholar and early biographer of Luther, the egg-shaped, golf-ball-size timepiece also turns out to be the earliest signed and dated watch known to exist.

The piece, whose primitive iron movement is housed inside a delicately pierced and engraved gilt brass case, lay unrecognized for nearly a century among a collection of some 300 watches purchased by Henry Walters. And it might have remained that way had not Maia Gahtan, an alert Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the museum's Renaissance and baroque department, decided to call in experts to investigate.

The resulting inquiry revealed that the watch, made in 1530 and signed with the initial of an anonymous German maker, was indeed the oldest such watch ever discovered. Previously, scholars had believed the earliest signed watch dated from 1548.

Walters' archival records indicated that the timepiece had originally belonged to Melanchthon, but until the recent investigation virtually no attention had been paid to that historically significant fact. In addition to being an important spiritual leader of his time, Melanchthon was also a university professor who lectured in astronomy and was fascinated by horology, the science of timekeeping and time measurement.

Accordingly, the exhibit includes several printed volumes associated with Melanchthon's era, including Luther's translation of the Bible as well as Melanchthon's own biography of Luther and his religious treatise "The Augsburg Confession," published in 1530, in which he reconciled the need for church reform with the traditional tenets of Christian theology.

Also included are two other timepieces from the same period, both from the museum's collection. One is a small table clock whose mechanism, which is displayed outside its case, is similar to that of Melanchthon's watch. The other is a portable timepiece from the second half of the 16th century whose flatter, more compact shape resembles that of later pocket watches.

All three watches have only one hand to indicate the hours; nearly another century would pass before hands showing minutes and seconds became commonplace.

This is a nice little mini-exhibition chock-full of interesting tidbits of information that engage the imagination on a subject most people today take for granted. I'd like to see the museum do more small shows like this in addition to the larger fall and spring seasonal shows that are its mainstays.

Two minor caveats: It would have been helpful to have included some sort of diagram showing how the movements of these early watches worked, if only to demonstrate why their timekeeping abilities were so poor; at best they could indicate the correct time only to the nearest half-hour.

Also, one wonders why the curators chose a 1940s-vintage Hamilton wristwatch to illustrate their early watches' modern counterpart.

In its day, it should be recalled, Melanchthon's watch was the pinnacle of mechanical engineering technology. Surely there must have been other modern watches available that would have been more representative of our era's highest horological achievements, be it a complicated, handmade Swiss movement or even an inexpensive, mass-produced quartz timepiece that, amazingly, is accurate to within a few tenths of a second a year.

Watch display

Where: The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Through Feb. 11

Hours: Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $7 adults, $5 students and seniors, $3 children 6 to 17

Call: 410-547-9000

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