The Prague Astronomical Clock is one among the city’s famous landmarks. It’s well over 600 years old & is one among the oldest functional astronomical clocks in the world.
It’s also a magnificent blend of mechanical engineering & art.
What does the Astronomical Clock do?
Like other astronomical clocks, famous Prague Clock is effectively a specially designed mechanism to display astronomical information. Many, just like The Orloj, tend to point the relative positions of the Sun, Moon, Zodiac constellations & sometimes, other planets.
The astronomical clock in Prague known as The Orloj, does all this & far more. It tells the time, provides the date, shows astronomical & zodiacal information & provides some theatre for its viewers on the hour, every hour.
Unsurprisingly, so as to provide this level of functionality, its mechanism is split into several distinct parts.
The first & most striking, is its impressive & beautifully ornate astronomical dial. This represents the position of the Sun & Moon in the sky and other various astronomical details.
An astronomical dial is a sort of the mechanical astrolabe which was commonly used in medieval timekeeping & astronomical studies.
The main stationary background to the clock’s face features a wealth of information to anyone who can read it. On the outermost ring of the background is a series of glyphs that are representative of the ancient Czech time.
Moving closer to the center, a group of Roman numerals are often seen. These, like most traditional clocks are used to indicate 24 hours-time.
Each of the several hues of blue & red within the main plate indicate events like sunrise, day-break, day-time, night-time, etc as well as including various geographical information just like the location of tropics & the equator.
The Earth or position of the observer, is situated in the very center of the dial.
Superimposed on the main–astrolabe is the Zodiacal ring. This, you will not be surprised to learn, displays the several signs of the zodiac and is meant to mark the location of the Sun on the ecliptic.
These zodiac signs are shown in anti-clockwise order.
The next most impressive part is a group of seemingly stationary statues dedicated to four ‘evils‘ or ‘vices‘ next to the clock & 4 ‘virtues‘ next to the lower calendar dial. The so-called evils include figures of icons like Death.
Just above the main clock are 2 blue doors that open-to reveal the “The Walk of the Apostles“. Between 9 am & 9 pm, each hour, on the hour, the statues become partially animated with, for instance, Death ringing his bell.
Below the main astrolabe & clock is the calendar dial with various painted ‘medallions‘, all representing the calendar months.
The subject of every shows various figures in fields to point the months & seasons. Another smaller set of images are displayed closer to the center, each representing, each of the signs of the zodiac.
The current date is tracked around the circumference of the dial which also indicates annual events such as each Saints Feast Day.
How old is the astronomical clock?
The Prague Astronomical Clock was first installed in 1410. This makes it the world’s third oldest astronomical clock & the oldest still operational today.
At the time of writing, this makes the clock 609 years old & still going strong. The first-recorded mention of the clock was in October of the same year.
But it should be acknowledged that this date was when the oldest part of the clock was installed, The Orloj. Within the subsequent hundred years, the lower calendar dial was added in around 1490.
Around the same time, incredible gothic statues were also added. At sometime in the late 1600s, probably between 1629 & 1659, the wooden statues were installed. The Apostle statues were added during a major refit between 1787 & 1791.
The clock tower iconic golden crowing rooster was added in around 1865.
Throughout time the clock has been subject to continuous maintenance & repair. In fact, there’s a legend that if the clock were to ever fall under disrepair, then the city will suffer.
It was heavily-damaged during the Second World War during the Prague uprising against occupying Nazi forces. After significant effort, the machinery was repaired, the wooden Apostles restored by Vojtěch Sucharda & The Orloj started working again in 1948.
Another phase of renovation was undertaken in 2005 with the lower calendar ring & statures restored. Anti-pigeon nets were also installed around the wooden statues.
The last renovation of the astronomical clock was carried-out from January to September 2018, following a reconstruction of the Old Town Tower. During the renovation, an electric clock mechanism that was operational since 1948 was replaced by an original mechanism from the 1860s.
Who built the astronomical clock in Prague?
For many years, it was believed that the clock was designed and built by clock-master Jan Růže (also called Hanuš). This has since been shown-to be a historical mistake.
There is a local legend that the original clockmaker was blinded by city-officials after completing their work. This was to stop from ever replicating their masterpiece elsewhere, a fine reward for their hard work.
Enraged by the act, the blind clockmaker climbed the tower & sabotaged his work to stop it working. The clock then remained silent for more than 50 years before being brought back to working order by Jan Taborský in 1552.
In fact, this event never happened and Hanus doesn’t appear to be the original craftsman. It’s currently understood that the clock was actually built by one Mikuláš of Kadaň.
It appears he was also assisted by a Catholic priest & scientist Jan Sindel.
Sindel offered astronomers insight with Mikulas making the clock actually work. Historical documents of the time support this with Mikuláš heavily praised for this incredible work by Prague council-officials.
What is the hidden message of the astronomical clock?
It seems Prague Astronomical Clock is a gift that keeps on giving. During recent refurbishment works of the clock, a secret hidden message was uncovered inside one among its statues.
The statues in question included the famous Apostles who appear in the top windows every hour during the day-time. Whilst working on them, one among the statues seemed to be tons heavier than its brethren.
The statue in question, that of St. Thomas, was later removed & X-rayed to ascertain if any light might bethrown on the mystery. It had been found a weird metal case, with a message, seemed to be inserted into him.
Restorers were able to remove the case safely & successfully opened it up. What they found was a literal message from the-past.
It was written by a sculptor, Vojtěch Sucharda. He was commissioned to re-create several sculptures after the clock tower was heavily damaged during the Prague Uprising of Second World War.
The message reveals the sculptor’s more extensive plans for the Astronomical Clock, which were never-completed. He also complained about the conditions at that time & the beginning of the communist era.
“Just when we think that we know everything about the monument like Old Town Hall, we can be surprised by the new finding. The reconstruction gave us the 70 years old message from Mr. Sucharda, who was commissioned to make new wooden sculptures of the Apostles and other figures in the post-war period,” said city councilor, Jan Wolf.
The restoration work also uncovered several hidden features of the clock tower dating-back to around the 15th Century. Several stone creature sculptures were uncovered in the corners under the calendar-dial behind some timbers.
It appears these were a number of the original details of the tower before the installation of the dial in the late 1400s.
“I was very-pleased with the discovery of stone statues of animals, the origin of which might be the first stage of ornamentation at the start of the 15th century. It’s exciting that there’s still something to discover & extend our historical knowledge. Who knows, what else we are going to discover,” Wolf added.