Located on the Old Town Square, and built in 1410 by watchmaker Mikuláš of Kadaň and astronomer Jan Šindel, Prague’s astronomical clock represented the cutting edge technology of the medieval ages. Nobel Prize nominee and Czech historical writer Alois Jirásek, mistakenly accredited it the creation of the Orloj (Czech word for the Astronomical clock) to clockmaster Jan Růže (also called Hanuš) in 1490; this is now known to be a historical mistake. It is true that Master Hanuš worked on the clock later around that time, but he is not the original creator.
Legend has it that once the beautiful Orloj was completed, the Prague Councilors ordered for Hanuš to be blinded so that he could not repeat his beautiful work that he had done on the clock in other cities. In turn, Hanuš got revenge by breaking down the clock, and no one was able to repair it for the next one hundred years.
How To Read The Clock
- As you can see, the clock has a few different colors, each representing a time of day. The darker blue-green color (in this image it all looks blue, sorry!) seen in this picture represents day. The light shade of green/blue/gray represents sunrise (left) and sunset (right). Orange represents daybreak, and black, of course, represents night.
- The clock tells time in three different ways.
- The Roman numerals show German time – Now known as civil time. This is the time that is used today.
- These black latin numbers tell Babylonian time, which only goes from sunrise to sunset. Babylonian time is also known as unequal time or Arabic time. The Babylonian hours are divided up by the golden fan, and if you notice closely, they are unequally spaced apart. This represents the unequal hours of the day, hence the alternative name of “unequal time.”
- The strange looking gothic numbers going around the outer part of the clock tell Old Bohemian time. Back then, Czechs believed that the new day began at sunset. You can see this as the first hour starts on the bottom right of the clock, where the shades that represent sunset are. This is also known as Italian time.
- The zodiacal ring is the off center dial with, you guessed it, the zodiac signs. This dial rotates and makes its rounds around the clock.
- It is hard to see in this photo all the details, but the astronomical clock has four hands.
- On the end of the longest hand is a… golden hand. This golden hand uses two fingers to help tell old Bohemian, unequal, and modern time.
- On the end of another hand is a golden sun. It shows the position of the sun in the sky. The position of the sun also tells old Bohemian time. The sun also shows the signs of the Zodiac on the zodiacal ring.
- Another hand has the moon at the end. The moon is a hollow ball with a helix and weight inside. As the hand with the moon travels around the dial, the weight forces the ball to rotate around its axis. One half of its surface is silver, the other black. So not only does it show the position of the moon in the sky, but it also shows the moons different phases, showing when its a full moon or new moon, etc.
- The final hand has a tiny golden star at the end of it. This indicates star time, or Sidereal Time. It measures the position of the stars in relation to when the Earth spins and is based on its positions in relation to the Roman numerals.
- In the very center of the clock is a painted picture of the Earth. Not only did people believe that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that everything rotated around it, but Europe is also placed right in the center. Everything revolves around the Earth, which is strange for us today, but that is how they viewed the universe back then.
In the 1850’s, the clock when through some major renovations, and the bottom Calendar board was added. The artwork was done by the famous Czech artist Josef Mánes, who, staying true to the supposed Orloj curse, was later in life struck with misfortune as he eventually lost his mind and died as a result. His Calandar board was taken down replaced with a replica in 1980, done by Jan Kryštof Liška, and the original can be found in the Prague City Museum.
The Largest part of the Calendar shows each month, depicted using the pastoral motifs. Beneath them are smaller pictures, which are the signs of the zodiac. In the center of the board is the municipal sign of Prague.
Around the fancy artwork a church calendar consisting of all the names of the saints and other religious holidays.
The names on the Orloj should not be confused with Czech name days. Every day of the year is associated with Czech name, which creates the Czech Name Day Calendar. Before the Velvet Revolution, parents had to give their newborn babies one of these names. Even today, it’s still popular and common for parents to choose one of these names, because not choosing one of these names is basically child abuse. Only kidding. But it would leave your child out on having what is pretty much a second birthday.
When a person’s name day arrives, then they are given small gifts by family members and close friends. Their work might even give them and everyone with that same name a small gift if the name is popular enough. In the digital age, when a popular name day comes, everyone with that name will be tagged and wished všechno nejlepší k svátku (all the best to your holiday/name day). Click here to look at the name day calendar.
On the hour, every hour, the Orloj preforms a little show, and draws in a large crowd to see the spectacle. Now maybe it’s because people are expecting something fun to watch like maybe the Astronomical clock in Munich, which plays twice a day at 12pm and 5pm respectively, and has figures dancing to music. This is not the case with the Orloj.
As each hour approaches, there is a skeleton that starts ringing a bell. The skeleton statuette represents death. So far, so good. On the same level as the skeleton are three other statuettes that are allegorical figures representing the things that people should avoid
One figure is man holding a mirror, which of course represents vanity. Next to him is a man holding a bag of money, who of course represents greed. Times were different back then, and this figure could be seen as offensive today as it is meant to be a Jewish money lender. Next to the skeleton on the opposite side is a Turk playing the mandolin, which represents hedonism/idleness/delight. During this time, unlike the Christians who tried to convert by force when they took over a kingdom, the Turks/muslims were much more liberal, and allowed some form of freedom of religion. They were also a very artsy people, which may have been the reason that the figurine is using a mandolin, trying to convey the message that if one is to indulge in such behavior as the Turks do, then that person is destined for hell.
With one hand, the skeleton is ringing the bell, in the other, he’s turning over an hour glass, indicating that time is up. The three figures mentioned earlier are turning their head, as if to tell the spectators to not be like them. Above this two windows open up and the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ appear, being lead by Peter. They are the message of hope, that people need to repent from their sinful ways. They are busy spreading the word in preparation of the second coming, or the final judgement.
After about a minute of all of this going on, a golden rooster on the top spreads its mighty wings, signifying that the final judgement is here and that the end has come, and lets out a pathetic cock-a-doodle-whoop-dee-doodle-doo.
Not quite. Because of how anti-climatic the show is, the city hires a trumpet player who plays a short tune at the very top of the tower to signify that show is over. When the trumpeter does not play, tourists are still waiting for something else to happen even a minute after the show is over. Because of their disappointment, the Orloj is often ranked #1 or #2 of most disappointing tourist attractions in Europe.
The figures are not the original, which were destroyed during WWII by the Germans. In 1947, Vojtěch Sucharda carved new ones that resembled the old after the clock was renovated. For information on the Germans and Czechs during WWII, click here
On the Orloj’s 600th birthday, a fantastic light show was designed. (special thanks to Dan Gregor | INITI.org)
Here is a video of the show that is played every hour. You can tell the tourist wasn’t anticipating the finally, and when they realize that the show is over, they let out a disappointed laugh. (special thanks to Globe Trotter‘s channel on Youtube)