Happy Birthday Prague Clock!

Things to Do — By Jacy Meyer on October 18, 2010 at 4:19 am

Prague’s Astronomical Clock, though not looking a day over 450, is actually 600 years old this year! One of the city’s most famous cultural heritage sites and a tourist favorite, the Prague Orloj (clock in Czech) was designed by Mikuláš of Kadan in the early 15th century. Additional work was done by Master Hanuš of Růže and an enduring legend has that Prague councilors blinded Hanuš when he was finished so he could never design such a clock again. Allegedly, he then stopped the clock in revenge, and this is based in fact as the clock did stop functioning in 1865 and there were discussions on whether to remove it. Its “newest” injuries came during World War II when Old Town Hall was bombed. Despite its age, the clock still has three-quarters of its original parts.

The clock’s key component is the astrolabe, an astronomical instrument which can determine the position of the sun, moon and stars. It’s comprised of a large brass ring consisting of two circular components with a peg in the middle. The Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer are represented on the astrolabe by circles and the signs of the zodiac can be seen around the astrolabe’s perimeter.

On the outer ring of the clock, golden numerals indicate Old Czech Time (or Italian time) in which the day began at sunset. Central European Time (or Old German Time) is indicated by the golden hand. Interestingly, while the clock now does a little show at the top of the hour, the clock didn’t sound the time until after the post-war reconstruction in 1948. A unique feature of the astronomical clock is that it shows Babylonian time which was calculated from sunrise to sunset so the length of the days changed with the seasons, i.e. longer in summer than in winter. The Prague Orloj is the only clock in the world that measures this time.

The lower part of the clock features a calendar dial which shows the day and its place in the week as well as the month and year. Before or after the apostle show, check out two of the clock’s hands. The one with an icon of the moon shows the moon’s phase, i.e. waxing or waning, and the second, with an icon of the sun, is the most important part of the clock. The astrolabe is adjusted according to local solar time. The sun is located on the same arm as the golden hand indicating the time. While all of that is great, if you need some navigation guidance, if you actually want to know what time it is, you are out of luck. Check the clock on the side of the Old Town Hall Tower instead.

At the top of every hour, from 9am-9pm, the 12 apostles appear at the clock’s two upper windows. Sculptor and woodcarver Vojtěch Sucharda designed this procession, unfortunately, twice! The first in 1912 and the second after the damage sustained in WWII. Above these windows, you’ll notice a rooster – a symbol of life – and its crow signals the end of the parade of the apostles. On either side of the clock, you’ll spot four figures: Vanity, Miser, Death and a Turk. Vanity is holding a mirror and shakes its head up and down while admiring itself. Miser shakes his cane and purse disapprovingly while Death, represented by a skeleton, turns an hourglass, symbolizing the passage of human life. Death actually survived the Old Town Hall fire and has been on the clock since the 15th century. Vanity and the Miser though were destroyed during WWII and what you see today are copies. The final figure is that of a Turk with his lute to symbolize the human vices of lust and extravagance. Statues of Michael the Archangel, a Philosopher, an Astronomer and a Chronicler can also be found on the clock.

Hundreds of people gather everyday to watch the roughly 60 second parade of the apostles. After the show, the area in Old Town Square clears out quite quickly so take a couple of minutes to walk up close and observe the beautiful intricacies of the Prague Orloj.

Just can’t enough of clocks? Check back tomorrow when we’ll introduce you to some of the Astronomical clock’s lesser known “brothers” around the country.

Photos courtesy of Jim Linwood, Kainet and Vit Hassan

Tags: astronomical clock, history, Old Town Square

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