Recently I read about a curious device known as the Antikythera mechanism. It is a clockwork analogue computer created by the ancient Greeks some 2100 years ago that was once used to compute and track things such as the positions of the stars and the cycles of the moon, as well as the date on the calendar, decades in advance. This knowledge was lost to history and would not return for centuries, and it would be well over a thousand years before anything even remotely as advanced as this mechanism—as well as the techniques used to make it—would resurface, let alone as everyday household appliances. Reading up on the Antikythera mechanism had begun to skew my perception of inventions and the achievements of the modern era. What can be so impressive about the clocks of the 14th century and onwards, when timekeeping devices equally as impressive existed even before the 1st? These thoughts weighed on my mind, occasionally clawing out of my brain as I gave in to the overwhelming urge to describe these discoveries to anyone who seemed remotely interested.

It was just a few weeks after my online expedition into the knowledge of ancient clockwork that I visited the Metropolitan Museum. I entered the area of the building dedicated to the Middle Ages—not that I was very interested in these particular styles of art, but I needed something to write about, and I expected to have an artist’s epiphany upon viewing the unfinished Leonardo da Vinci that was recommended by the museum guide. On my way through the hallway to join the rows of museumgoers meandering in to the room with the Leonardo and amassing as a crowd, something caught my eye. As if by magnetic attraction, my head swiveled in a double take, and I backtracked to briefly study the glint of gold I’d passed in the hallway.

The piece wasn’t anything particularly unique—pretty, sure, glittering elegantly in what seemed to be pure gold. The label read “Astronomical Table Clock—1500s”, and my mind immediately went to the Antikythera. But this was just a normal clock. Expensive, definitely—an artisan’s work, no doubt. Perhaps once belonging to a king or an emperor. But it was no ancient historical marvel, and it was certainly no Leonardo. I expected no magical epiphany, no spiritual hidden knowledge to become apparent upon looking at it. Thus I made a mental note to return to it and pressed on.

I waited my turn and inched to the front of the crowd, eyeing the Leonardo carefully from all angles for a solid fifteen minutes. The voice of the museum guide rang in my head (“There’s a rumor that you can see Leonardo’s fingerprints somewhere in the painting—haven’t found them myself, but maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of them!”) as I leaned around the edge of the painting to watch as the light bounced off the paint. But in the end, it was just an unfinished painting. Beautiful and with a deep knowledge of the medium visible in what was complete, as well as the sketched guidelines that would forever be on view and give the painting a look of nakedness, of indecency. I felt no connection to this piece—the ghost of Leonardo did not whisper his artistic secrets in my ear. Whenever I blinked, behind my closed eyes I would see the image of the glittering box of gold down the hall, waiting patiently for my second glance. And so I backed out of the crowd and made a beeline for the golden clock on the shelf in the hallway.

A table clock in a gold casing from the 1500s, its initial date of creation and name of the inventor who designed the moving parts unknown (though believed to be a famous clockmaker named Jeremias Metzger), having been finished and signed in 1568 by an artist named Caspar Behaim. Behaim’s work on the clock’s pure gold shell is undeniably meticulous; detail-oriented, designating a needle focus on creating an external image as priceless as the knowledge that would be extracted from its innards. Its architecture consists of various human figurines; two women flanking one of its various clock faces, scenes depicting warriors on the base and roof, a cherub playing a violin acting as a spire at the top. The image draws you in, inviting you to partake in the various dials, to gaze at its iron gears through the peepholes on the back.

The two women stand beneath the main clock face, which depicts the time, date, and position of the stars, and between a smaller one seeming to depict the seven days of the week. The one on the right holds a sword and is dressed mostly in what seems to be metal and leather, her long skirt flowing behind her and giving her legs room for movement. She gazes behind her, holding her sword out before her and seemingly blind to who stands across from it. That would be the other woman, who dresses in a flowing gown, its fabric wrapped around her legs and restricting them. She gazes at her opposite gently, perhaps pleadingly, holding out before her not a sword but a handful of flowers. In her other hand is a farming tool—some sort of plow—and at her feet is a child, grasping at her dress in hopes of getting her attention.

Drawing up images in my mind of the Greek goddesses of my childhood bedtime stories, I imagine the scene as a quarrel between Athena and Demeter—Athena turning her head in a refusal to acknowledge Demeter’s offering of peace, declaring war to soon ravage the farmland on the other side of the clock. They remain eternally at this standstill, as the days of the clock turn, and as the weeks pass by. This I imagine to be synonymous with the nature of man, the designer’s way of contemplating the endless cycle of duality as the goddesses of peace and war duel in an eternal tug-of-war on the strings of their mortal puppets.

I stood there, philosophizing and watching the golden marvel for forty-five minutes, and the museum would be closing soon. Directly contrasting the turn of the clock, the wheels in my head rewound once more to Antikythera mechanism. For the final time I pondered: how can a clock from the 1500s, having nearly all the same functions, even compare to such an achievement from thousands of years ago? The answer is that it does not need to. This golden astronomical table clock is not a milestone of innovation; it doesn’t contribute anything that hasn’t been seen before in the world of practical invention, and ancient Greek statue-like figures and scenes of war are not contributing anything that hasn’t been seen before in the timeline of art—which, as best described by Mark Doty in Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, is “a little nearer to the time of eternity than our poor daily gestures.” Perhaps it will be forgotten to time as the ancient clockwork of the Antikythera once was, and unlike its ancestor, would remain buried under a sea of irrelevancy. But maybe the value of art shouldn’t be measured by practical or historical means, as what it means to the individual is equally as important and insolvably subjective.

For many, seeing a Da Vinci in person is a religious experience and a highlight of their lives. I’ll keep watching the clock, and perhaps I’ll have my epiphany some other time.

Chris Mourtos is a second-year student majoring in Animation. “I enjoy telling stories and trying out new mediums,” Chris says. “My dream is to work on an animated TV show that will inspire people.”