Unveiling of the restored Orloj astronomical clock
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Tales and meanings of the Prague Astronomical Clock

The Astronomical Clock, a popular tourist attraction, has been restored to its pre-war condition​

The Astronomical Clock at Prague’s Old Town Square has been rebuilt, returning its inner clockwork to the weights and gears system used in the 1860s, and revitalizing its faded external faces.

The clock had been quickly rebuilt with some modern internal elements in 1948 after having been fire-damaged at the end of World War II.

It was unveiled again on September 28, 2018, on St Wenceslas Day, a month ahead of schedule. It had been out of commission since February and replaced for a while by an LED replica. The clock is often called the Orloj, following its Czech name, and less commonly the Horologe.

The new color scheme for the face of the astrolabe, with deep red fading to black at the bottom, where solid orange and black concentric circles used to be, has met with a mixed reaction, but it is just the next phase for a clock that has changed many times in over 600 years. The shaded red is meant to represent the gradually fading twilight, rather than a sharp line between day and night.

Another new feature on the astrolabe is a small, flat depiction of a golden globe in the center of the framework, with curved latitude and longitude lines. It replaced a faded depiction of the world that had an accurate depiction of North and South America, which would not have been known six centuries ago.

Old and new look of the astrolabe astronomical clock
Old and new look of the astrolabe
Old and new look of the astrolabe
Old and new look of the astrolabe

The lower calendar wheel, which takes an entire year to turn, was replaced with a new copy of the painting by Josef Manes from 1864–66, depicting the 12 months and zodiac signs.

The statues of the Apostles, which appear once an hour in windows above the astrolabe, were also restored to their 1948 appearance. The previous ones were destroyed in the last days of World War II, when the German army set Old Town Square on fire.

The doors that cover the saints’ two windows are now stained glass, replacing post-war wooden ones.

Other changes were made to the Old Town Hall Tower, including changing the clocks near the top to their Baroque appearance, with the big hand pointing out hours and the small one minutes on a face with gilded numerals.

A wire mesh now covers the clock to protect it, and that unfortunately interferes with closeup photos. A new safety railing was also added in front of the astrolabe for the rare times someone has to go out and manually adjust something.

There is a legend that if the Astronomical Clock stops, some catastrophe will occur for the Czech nation. One version says that a boy born on New Year’s Eve can stop the bad turn of fate if he runs from the nearby Church of Our Lady before Týn and arrives at the clock before the last chime rings and the skeleton puppet on the side moves his arm.

When the clock was turned off in February, the city took the risk of not finding such a boy. So far, though, nothing extraordinary has occurred.

astronomical clock Calendar wheel by Josef Manes
Calendar wheel by Josef Manes
Baroque tower clock astronomical clock
Baroque tower clock

One of the creepiest and oldest legends about the clock thankfully is most likely not true. The clock was supposedly built by a clockmaker known as Master Hanuš.

By the end of his work, Prague had the best tower clock in all of Europe. But the city’s leaders were vain, and wanted to make sure that no other tower anywhere would surpass it.

They sent thugs to find Master Hanuš and blind him, so he could not make another clock anywhere.

But he had his revenge. As he grew sick with fever, the blind man made his way into the clock’s inner workings and destroyed some of the gears, and right after that fell over dead. Nobody knew how to replace them, and the clock stopped for 100 years.

Similar legends occur in other places that have fancy public clocks, particularly Strasbourg. So this is more of a genre piece than a historical fact.

The first mention of Master Hanuš didn’t come until some time after the Astronomical Clock was built, and modern research shows that nobody by that name was really involved in the clock’s early days.

The legend was made popular by writer Alois Jirásek in his 1894 book Old Czech Legends.

The construction of the Astronomical Clock is a bit of a mystery. For a long time, it was thought to date to 1490, but research in the mid-20th century pushed the date back to at least 1410.

astronomical clock Death and the Turk
Death and the Turk
One of the sleepers, with an owl astronomical clock
One of the sleepers, with an owl in the background

Some sources say it was built by mathematician and astronomer Jan Šindel, who later, with his sight intact, became rector of Charles University. Another name mentioned is Jan Růže, about whom nothing else is known. Master Mikuláš of Kadaň is also linked with the clock’s early days, and he may have done the original work that the others elaborated on. Or Šindel tried to make one before 1410, but was unsuccessful, and Master Mikuláš rebuilt it.

Unfortunately, many of the original documents have been lost so details are known only from quotes, summaries and partial copies.

Like many medieval towers and buildings, the Astronomical Clock is filled with symbolism. The first thing to notice is that it has four levels, which can be seen to correspond to earth, water, air and fire, the four basic elements.

It can also be read as Earth, Moon, Sun and Cosmos, which is more obvious and perhaps more useful. As such, the clock ties together all the aspects of the known universe in one place.

The Earth level now has only an entrance to the clockworks, used only by the clock maintenance staff. In the past, there were also market stalls inset in the walls on the street level, as can be seen in etchings.

There is little to say aside from people being able to take care of their earthly needs.

astronomical clock Door at the Orloj’s lowest level
Door at the Orloj’s lowest level
Archangel Michael and the Philosopher astronomical clock
Archangel Michael and the Philosopher

The next level is the Moon, associated with water. The 19th century calendar wheel by Josef Manes updates a previous one with a similar design concept. In the middle is an old version of the city seal, and around that, in a circle, are depictions of the 12 zodiac signs. The larger outer circle has paintings depicting the 12 months. These are inspired by 365-letter Latin poems called, in singular, cisiojanus, which describe some scene related to that time of year.

When he designed New Town, Emperor Charles IV pictured Prague as the New Jerusalem. The old version of the city seal refers to a passage in the Book of Revelation saying the gates of Jerusalem will never be closed. Other references to Jerusalem are also on the clock. The Jerusalem in question, though, is more of a metaphysical place of pure spiritual existence.

Framing the gilded plate is a circle with 365 names corresponding to the Czech name days, similar to Christian feast days of saints but not always corresponding exactly.

The whole wheel takes a year to turn, and an arrow on top points to the name for each day as it passes.

Before Manes’ version of the wheel was installed, the polychrome wooden statue of Archangel Michael at the side used to point to the day. Now the archangel points at nothing in particular, as the indicator arrow has been shifted up 90 degrees. One of Archangel Michael’s attributes is the protector of the Holy City, and another is the esoteric spirit of time. He indicated the day with the fabled Spear of Destiny, which at the time the clock was built was in the possession of the Czech kings and held in the keep at Karlštejn.

The sides of the wheel are adorned with four painted statues, and aside from the Archangel there are the Philosopher, Astronomer and the Chronicler. These were likely added in the first half of the 18th century, and changed over time with different attributes.

Detail of the calendar wheel under the Astronomical Clock
Detail of the calendar wheel under the Astronomical Clock
Names on the calendar wheel astronomical clock
Names on the calendar wheel

Easy to miss, there are also stone figures in the corners of the square framing the circle. Two are referred to as the Sleepers, but the one on the right signifies dawn as he is about to arise, and the one one the left is sunset as he is seen with an owl, a night bird.

Around the wheel are grape leaves, and above the wheel are a monkey, a phoenix, and a tangle of plants with hidden figures. These all are part of a hidden masons’ code of plant and animal symbolism that can be found on old buildings across Europe.

The stone figures here and above are believed by some to have been made by Petr Parléř (Peter Parler), the same architect responsible for Charles Bridge and parts of Prague Castle. He died in 1399, though, so if he made them that means plans for the clock were made long before it was actually built. They are in his style, but perhaps completed by his students.

The main part of the clock is the elaborate astrolabe, which is on the level associated with the Sun and air.

The Astronomical Clock shows the positions of the Sun and Moon in the zodiac, as well as the relative positions to the earth. While it lacks the other visible planets, it was used for centuries by astrologers to make simple charts.

It also shows the time, but is rather hard to read. Different circles show Babylonian time, which divides day and night into 12 unequal hours each; Old Bohemian time, which has 24 equal hours but starts the day at sunset; Central European Time, but without the hour ahead and back for Summer Time, and star or sidereal time, to show the complete rotation of the zodiac.

astronomical clock saints in the window
Sts. James the Less and Peter appear first
Philip, right, is sometimes mistaken for Jesus astronomical clock
Philip, right, is sometimes mistaken for Jesus
The doors slide closed after the saints finish astronomical clock
The doors slide closed after the saints finish

Curved lines on the clock face show all sorts of other information such as the solstices, equinoxes and times of sunrise and sunset.

There are also a series of stone animals around this clock face.They do not correspond to the zodiac, but to the secret stone masons’ language. A dragon, reclining demon and several monster faces can be seen under the clock face. A bat, a dog, a hedgehog, a lion and a frog are among the animals.

The wooden figures at this level are Vanity, Greed, Death and the Turk. The figure of Death predates the others. It is mentioned in a report from 1570 that does not mention any other sculptures, including the Apostles.

Death is also animated. Wires have one of its arms pull a bell rope and nod its head. In the past it also moved its jaw, which led to its nickname of Clacker. A tale says a bird was once caught in its mouth and had to wait a whole hour to be set free.

The final level is the Cosmos, or Fire. Surprisingly, there is a dispute over when the moving procession of saints was added. Early accounts don’t include it, but they don’t specifically exclude it either.

Some experts say they date to around 1490, others put them in the 17th century.

An etching from 1793, based on an earlier painting, is the first visual image to show the saints in the windows.

The saints have changed over time, as the names on old lists do not correspond with the current figures from 1948. And not all of the saints, strictly speaking, are Apostles. Judas is of course left out, but so are James the Greater and Matthew.

Paul, Matthias, the saint who replaced the expelled Judas, and Barsabbas, an obscure early saint, appear in the current lineup along with nine of the original Apostles.

astronomical clock Side view of the Old Town Hall Tower, showing damage from World War II
Side view of the Old Town Hall Tower, showing damage from World War II
Temporary LED replacement clock astronomical clock
Temporary LED replacement clock

James the Greater and Matthew were in the previous lineup, while the apostle Thaddeus and the newly added Barsabbas were not.

There is no explanation for why Barsabbas was added and Mathew, a major Church figure, was excluded.

During the restoration of the clock, a time capsule was found in the statue of St Thomas. It had a message from sculptor Vojtěch Sucharda, about the conditions of the 1948 restoration under communism, and a list of his plans that had not been carried out.

Some published accounts say Jesus was once in the procession, but likely it was St Philip, who also carries a cross.

Between the doors that open once an hour to show the Apostles, there is a stone angel, and above that a golden rooster that crows at the end of the procession. The angel in early accounts is referred to the Angel of the Mount of Olives, another figure meant to link Prague to the idea of a New Jerusalem. The angel has a banner that at one time had lettering, but the inscription is lost.

The last item is the golden rooster, which was added in the 19th century. It refers to German legends of a golden rooster crowing to wake sleeping (dead) warriors so they can protect Asgard from the Apocalypse (Ragnarök). The golden rooster also crows when an unworthy person attempts to cross the rainbow bridge into the spiritual realm.

So the animated skeleton reminds us we all will die, and the rooster reminds us we are doomed unless we prepare our souls for the journey to the top of the esoteric tower and beyond.

There are many more small details in the statues and stonework, and lots more information about reading the astrolabe and the calendar wheel, but it would fill a book.

Several cards in the The Tarot of Prague use images from the Astronomical Clock and its surroundings. The calendar wheel can be seen in the Wheel of Fortune in the Major Arcana. The Old Town Hall Tower is on the Page of Wands. The astrololabe face is on the Knight of Wands, along with St Wenceslas. The Church of Our Lady before Týn is on the Knight of Pentacles.

Wheel of Fortune from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
Wheel of Fortune from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
Page of Wands from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
Page of Wands from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
Knight of Wands from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
Knight of Wands from The Tarot of Prague, © BabaBarock Ltd
Knight of Pentacles magic bohemia tarot of prague
Knight of Pentacles from The Tarot of Prague © BabaBarock Ltd
Mural of St Wenceslas on Old Town Square

Update: the face of the Astronomical Clock was changed in June 2019 due to complaints from astronomers and other scientists that it was inaccurate and the shading made it impossible to read correctly. In 2022 a routine examination determined that the artist who restored the  calendar wheel  had used faces of contemporary figures including his friends instead of copying the original. The city in 2023 announced it would make a new copy based on the original.

Revised face of the Astronomical Clock
Revised face of the Astronomical Clock

Update: the face of the Astronomical Clock was changed in June 2019 due to complaints from astronomers and other scientists that it was inaccurate and the shading made it impossible to read correctly. In 2022 a routine examination determined that the artist who restored the  calendar wheel  had used faces of contemporary figures instead of copying the original. The city in 2023 announced it would make a new copy based on the original.

Main image: Unveiling the restored Astronomical Clock on Sept. 28, 2018. All photos by the author.

An article by BabaBarock with Raymond Johnston. Copyright BabaBarock Ltd, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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