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Old Town Astronomical Clock - Old Town Square, Old Town

Old Town Astronomical Clock

Old Town Square, Old Town

The Old Town Astronomical Clock on the tower of the Old Town Hall, is one of the most important technical monuments in Prague, Bohemia and the whole Europe and is also an evidence of highly advanced science and horology craft in Bohemia at the beginning of the 15th century and in later centuries too. The tower, now 65.5 metres high, was built in 1380. The astronomical clock (consisting of the clock machine and an astronomical sphere) was made by clockmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň and astronomer Jan Ondřejův called Šindel before 1410 when the clock was firstly mentioned in writing. Sculptural stone decorations were made by Parléř’s stone masonry. Clockmaker Jan from Růže also called Hanuš who until recently was considered to be the author of the astronomical clock, only repaired the clock in 1490, improved it and added the calendarium (calendar board). Other repairs were made in 1552-60 (then the moving figures were added to it), then it was rather neglected for centuries and it only was used occassionally with long time periods in between. In 1787 it was even considered to sell it for metal recycling but clockmaker J. Landesberger with the help of the astronomer A. Strnad repaired the mechanical part at least which was then functioning until 1824. This unique clock was again under threat in 1861 when its planned sale was only stopped at last minute, thanks to a public collection of money. After a fire 1864 new wooden figures of Apostles were added and one year later, Prague clockmaker L. Hainz restored the mechanical part of the astronomical clock, the astronomical sphere and a new calendarium by J. Mánes was placed there. In 1866 the beam was replaced by a unique chronometer by mechanician R. Božek and the astronomical clock finally started running again. During the Prague Uprising of 1945 the clock was seriously damaged by the shelling of the German artillery and the subsequent fire, after the war it was restored though and in 1948 the whole system with new statues of Apostles by sculptor V. Sucharda and with a copy of Mánes‘ picture calendar started running again. During the repairs, the clock was connected to an electric motor (before it had to be cranked up). The most recent major repairs of the clock took place in 1979 and 2005.

The astronomical clock consists of approximately 350 components, out of which ¾ are still originals from the 15th century; originally the whole machine didn’t have a single nail in it, just riveted. The central and the main part of the astronomical clock is the astronomical section (the so-called sphere) which shows old Bohemian and also modern time as well as ongoing astronomical phenomena such as the sunrise and sunset, course of the Sun and the Moon and other interconnected movements of astronomic objects in a geocentric system. At present time only experts can understand this whole system and this was also the case in the Middle Ages. The lower calendarium is easier to understand – it shows days and months with their astrological signs. However, for spectator’s point of view, the moving figures are the most attractive part, especially those of the twelve Apostles which gradually appear in the small windows of the former prison in the upper part of the astronomical clock. They are:

In the left window

St.Paul holding a book and a sword
St.Thomas with a spear
St. Jude Thaddeus holding a book in his left hand
St. Simon with a saw
St. Bartholomew with a book and a knife
St. Barnabas with papyrus

In the right window

St. Peter with a key
St. Matthew with an axe
St. John castigating a serpent
St. Andrew bearing saltire cross
St. Philip with a cross
St. James with a fuller’s ram

On the sides of the astronomical clock there are four pairs of moving figures: in the top left-hand corner there are figures of a Coxcomb and a Miser, at the bottom where is a Chronicler and an Angel, in the top right-hand corner there is a Death and a Turk or a fiddler and at the bottom there is an Astronomer and a Philosopher. On each hour the Apostles gradually come out in front of the spectators and the figures on the side come to life too. The Skeleton pulls a string and the ringing starts of the marching of the Apostles. At the same time he nods at the Turk who refuses his services by turning his head. The Miser nods his head, shakes a purse in his hand and also threatens with a stick while the Coxcomb looks at himself in the mirror. After the windows with Apostles close a golden cock crows and then the tower clock strikes.

The most famous legend linked to the Old Town Astronomical Clock is that about Master Hanuš, the alleged author of the clock. He was allegedly blinded by the councillors using a hot metal rod so that he could not build another or even a better clock anywhere else again. Hanuš then asked one of his helpers to lead him to the clock, he tampered with the clock machine and broke it so that nobody could fix; whoever tried to repair it became insane from the complexity of the machine. Similar legend is also said about many other astronomical clocks in Europe. It is also said that if the clock stops for a longer period of time, bad times for the Czech nation are ahead.

The only astronomical clocks that are older than the one in the Old Town are those in Padova, Italy (1344, rebuilt in 1434) and in Strasbourg, France (1352, rebuilt in 1574 and 1838). The Czech clock, however, was preserved in the most authentic state. Another historical clock (from the end of the 15th century) was preserved only in Olomouc in the Czech country, it has been rebuilt numerous times though so its historical appearance is only partly known. According to old sources there also used to be an astronomical clock at the town hall in Kutná Hora towards the end of the 14th century; at the end of the 14th century it was placed on another building and in 1770 destroyed by a fire; there is no information available regarding its appearance or construction.

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