The Astronomical Clock of Prague: with 600 years of activity it’s the oldest still functioning.5 min read
The Astronomical Clock in Prague Old Town is an amazing example of ingenuity and medieval art. It is one of the main attractions of the city, and every day count hundreds of tourists. Behind this place there are some legends, and like every legend have always spread, and it’s not so important if are true or false, and if you want believe or not, it’s only your choice!
The Old Town Astronomical Clock has been often exciting emotions in people, positive or negative, and based on them legends have came into existence. The most popular legend is told by the Czech writer Alois Jirásek too, and speak about Jan Růže, known as Hanuš, one of the most important clockmakers. This legend does not know Mikuláš of Kadaň as the author of Orloj, but in fact Hanuš. Based on the legend Hanuš was chosen by the councillors of Prague to construct a unique time measuring device at Staroměstská radnice, that would have many other functions besides measuring time like a normal clock. Hanuš did what he had promised, and after he had introduced his perfect device to the councillors, also they were fully satisfied, they got scared, because they wanted the machine to stay exclusive, and they worried that he could make a similar thing for another city. So they were thinking how to get rid of him, and after numerous ruminations on how to avoid the problem, they finally came to an unhappy choice. One night a group of people broke into the Hanuš ‘ s house and they blinded him with a piece of iron. Despite this, Hanuš knew very well who was, and therefore he asked one of his apprentices to accompany him into the heart of the astronomical clock. The guy did what he was told and Hanuš, despite his blindness, stopped the clockwork. Always based on the legend, it took more than a century before the astronomical clock was in function again.
Numerous legends are also related to the figure of the skeleton, one of the figures who living in the astronomical clock. It was said, that once the Old Town Astronomical Clock stops running for a long time, the Czech nation will suffer bad periods and the skeleton was supposed to confirm this fact by nodding the head. Based on the legend, the only hope was represented by a guy born in the New Year´s night. When the astronomical clock sets in motion again, the boy is supposed to run out very fast of the Týn Church across the whole square to the town hall, to arrive before the last strike of the clock. If he does it, he will quit the skeleton’s power and avert all the evil. However, in some discordant legends the skeleton was a sign of hope, in fact, if you take a careful look you can see two little windows above the astronomical clock, used to bring to the jail used for imprisoning the aristocrats. One day a knight was imprisoned there, waiting for his execution. He was looking out of he window and just when the clock started to strike a bird flew along the skeleton. When the skeleton closed his mouth he imprisoned the bird inside. The bird had to wait another hour until the skeleton opened his mouth again to be able to fly away. When the knight saw that, he started to believe he would get out of his jail, too. At last, the inhabitants of Prague pardoned him, and this is the reason because the skeleton became the symbol of hope.
But leaving aside the legends, the true architect of the magnificent mechanism was Mikuláš of Kadaň, who devised the project in 1410. The first signs present in the chronicle of the time, are dated back to 9 October 1410. It’s the third oldest astronomical clock and also the oldest still functioning, with over 600 years of activity. When the hour strikes, the top of the clock opens its windows and shows the 12 apostles in a circular procession. At the same time, the other wooden sculptures that surround the clock are activated. At the sides of the dial the Death holds an hourglass in the hands, another figure, positioned on the opposite side, representing the vanity and has a mirror in his hand. Other figures, like the Astronomer and the Philosopher, remain motionless. On the hour, the skeleton rings the bell and immediately all other figures shake their heads, side to side, signifying their unreadiness “to go.” Some of these sculptures are reproductions of the original ones, because these were damaged, some destroyed, by the German soldiers who bombarded the city at the end of the Second World War, between 7 and 8 May 1945. After a great restoration work, the clock resumed functioning in 1948.
The astronomical dial is the oldest of all clock components. The Earth is placed at the center, the blue color represents the sky above the horizon, while the brownish counterpart the sky below it. The dial is made up of a zodiacal ring, a rotary outer ring, an icon representing the Sun and one the Moon. The letters marked in Latin indicate which side is the east and which the west, while north and south are indicated by the Latin words ‘aurora’ and ‘ortus’. A zodiacal circle represents the stars of the celestial vault, and flows in harmony with the other components. The three levels can measure three different times. The third is the most particular, because measures the Bohemian timetable, or Arabic time, where the hour is determined only from dawn to sunset. During the summer, the day is longer, shorter in winter. The astronomical clock in Prague is the only one in the world that shows the ancient Bohemian time.
Compared to the astronomical one, the Calendar dial has less functionality. On its center, there is the symbol of the Old Town of Prague and the outer ring shows the day of the week and its position in the week, month and year.