Prague Astronomical Clock

Astronomical clock in Prague on Old Town Square

Astronomical clock in Prague on the Old Town Square is a top attraction! It is obligatory to see it! It is not just a clock – it is a chime, which beats a melody every hour and makes performance. Another name for it is Orloj, which means “chimes” in Czech. But first things first.

Let me remind you that I have a walking route #1 for all the important attractions of the old city, which goes right past the clock. I highly recommend that you walk on it.

This is the astronomical clock face. And this is how the clock looks like in its entirety.

First of all, this is one of the oldest clocks in the world that still works. In 2010, they celebrated their 600th anniversary! The craftsman who made it was rewarded with a house in the Old City and a salary for life.

Secondly, the clock is astronomical. This means that besides the usual time, it gives a lot of different information. 1) It can show three different kinds of time (sidereal, Babylonian, and ancient Bohemian). 2) They display the date, month, day of the week and what Christian holiday today is. 3) Represent what constellation the sun is in, what phase the moon is in, etc. How to read all this from them is written here .

Third, the clock gives a small representation every hour. You can see how it happens in the video. In brief, it looks like this… First, two windows are opened and the apostles appear in them one by one. Then the clocks start ringing and the sculptures near the dials move. Most eye-catching is the figure of a skeleton (Death) who pulls a rope and rings a bell. The show ends with the singing of a rooster and sometimes the applause of the tourists.

Attention! Chimes show every hour from 09.00 to 21.00. At other time you will not see anything!

Video of the Prague Astronomical Clock.

Fourthly, the clock is located on the Old Town Hall building. You can visit it, but only with a guided tour. You will be shown the town hall and its dungeons. About the tour is written in detail here . But the main thing is not even the town hall, but its tower, which is the best viewing platform in Prague. Be sure to climb it. About it is written here .

And the fifth. The square under the clock is like kilometer zero in the Old Town and a meeting place. I, for example, tell you how to get to all the attractions in this historic district just from the Prague Chimes and from this tower.

Attention, thieves! When all the tourists look up at the clock, it makes the work of pickpockets easier. True, they say that now the city police have done away with it, but nevertheless, be careful.

Everyone looks up at the clock.

Everyone looks up at the clock.

The sculptures on the clock – what do they mean?

There are a lot of sculptures on clocks. I will tell you about the most important ones that immediately catch the eye. Let’s start from the top down.

The sculptures around the dials

    A rooster, an angel and two basilisks. These sculptures protect the watch from evil forces. The oldest sculpture is of an angel, and the rooster was added about a hundred years ago. The rooster, by the way, symbolizes life and by his cry destroys the effect of hostile charms. He cries at the very end of the chime. To do it with bellows, like in the forge, air is supplied to special whistling pipes. And also look for sculptures of two basilisks (snakes) on the clock. They also serve as protection against evil forces. These snakes (basilisks) are located on both sides on the sloping roof over the clock.

The sculptures of the apostles in the windows

And now about the most interesting sculptures – those that appear in the windows of the tower, when the clock on Old Town Square in Prague beats a new hour. They are the sculptures of the Twelve Apostles. The original sculptures burned down in 1945 and were replaced by wooden copies.

These figures of the apostles appear in the windows. You can see them closer during a tour of the town hall.

These are the figures of the apostles that appear in the windows. You can see them closer during a tour of the town hall.

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Each apostle holds in his hand the object with which he was killed. If the apostles could talk, they would tell these stories about themselves.

    I am the apostle Philip. I was a fisherman. I immediately believed that Jesus was the Messiah. In my old age, I was seized by pagans, whipped, and crucified on a cross. That is why I hold the cross in my hands.

Legends associated with clocks

  • The legend of the watchmaker Hanusha. It was long wrongly thought that the author of the astronomical clock in Prague was Hanus (in fact, it was the craftsman Mikuláš from the town of Kadaň who created the chimes). Such a watchmaker indeed existed, and he at one time (in 1490) repaired this clock and added to it the lower calendar dial and the first moving sculpture of death (skeleton), which rang the bell. There was a legend about this master.

One day an unknown old watchmaker came to town and offered to make a clock that no one else in the world. The mayor agreed, and the old man made a mechanism that astonished all the citizens. It was then that the craftsman was asked whether he could make a better clock than this. He replied that he certainly could. The mayor of the city was not satisfied with this. He wanted to be the only one to have such a miracle, so he ordered the old man to be blinded.

What the clock shows

The astronomical clock in Prague on Old Town Square is very complicated, and what it shows, even Czechs do not understand. Therefore, another ordinary clock was hung on the tower to tell the time by it. However, I will try to explain how to use chimes. So…

The clock has two dials. The upper one is the most complicated, it shows 4 kinds of time and all kinds of astronomical data. The lower one is simpler – it is a calendar dial. Let’s start with the easy one, the lower one.

The lower dial is the calendar.

This is the simplest dial. It shows what month, date, day of the week and what Christian holiday it is. It consists of a disc with a diameter of 2.2 meters, which rotates. A full turn of the disk makes one year. And on top of it there is a stationary pointer hand.

The lower dial is a calendar.

The lower dial is a calendar.

At present, the disc is driven by the movement. In the past, the watchmaker moved it manually every day – that’s the secret.

This calendar disk is beautifully painted. Each month has a different picture with a scene from rural life, typical for that time. For example, the picture for July shows a peasant woman reaping wheat, and in December a piglet is slaughtered for a feast.

A farmer is tying up trees - that's April. The peasant plowing the field is March. Note the disk with the dates and names of holidays.

A peasant is tying up trees – that’s April. The peasant plows the field – that’s March. Note the disk with the dates and names of holidays.

Upper dial – time and astronomical data

The upper dial is much more complicated. It is astronomical, that is, it shows not only the time, but also some astronomical data. But let’s start with the time it shows.

The upper dial. Shows its rotation in 1 year with an interval of a month.

Babylonian time. Babylonian time is marked by curved sectors with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…11, 12). But you should orient not by the numbers, but precisely by the sectors. Look carefully at the dial – these sectors and numbers are located in the blue part of the disk. In fact, the Babylonian time is very funny and unusual. Let me explain how it is counted.

Babylonian time has only 12 hours. The first hour begins when the sun rises above the horizon, and the last 12th hour ends when the sun goes down. So it is tied to sunrise and sunset. Let’s say the daylight hours in winter (from sunrise to sunset) last 8 of our usual hours – which means that a Babylonian hour is equal to forty of our usual minutes (8 hours divided by 12 hours = 40 minutes). And in summer, the daylight hours are, say, 16 of our accustomed hours – which means that the Babylonian hour equals 80 of our minutes (16 hours divided by 12 hours = 80 minutes). The pointer for Babylonian time is a pointer with the sun.

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Ancient Czech time. It is shown by the largest dial with incomprehensible broken digits (they were used in ancient Germany). This is the time lived by in Bohemia, when the Prague chimes were made. Now the data from this dial is useless. The pointer for it is a pointer with a golden hand.

Astronomical dial.

Astronomical dial.

Modern time. It is marked with Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, etc.). This is the only useful information for us now (what we can understand) that can be seen on the Prague clock. The pointer for modern time also serves as a pointer with a golden hand. But keep in mind that this dial has two sets of Roman numerals for night and for day. Also keep in mind that this clock does not adjust for daylight saving time, so it shows one hour less in the summer!

Stellar time. Astronomers use it to know where to point the telescope. It is marked with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 11, 12). The arrow is a pointer with a star.

Now, briefly about what astronomical data is shown on the dial.

It should be noted that the dial reflects the ancient concept of the Universe, when it was believed that the center of the Universe is the stationary Earth, and the Sun, Moon, planets and stars rotate around it.

The clock, as you realized, has several hands. One of them is a picture of the sun and the other is a picture of the moon. Here’s what they show…

The hand indicating the sun. 1) What time of day it is: dawn, day, dusk, or night. 2) The height of the sun above the horizon. 3) Which zodiac the sun is currently in. Look carefully: there is a disk with the signs of the zodiac – it’s just for that. 4) The approximate date of the calendar.

The arrow with the moon indicator. Shows what phase the moon is in now. This is fascinating. See how it is arranged. The pointer is a balloon. There is a mechanism inside that rotates it. The outside of the ball is painted two colors: black and silver. If the ball turned to us completely with the silver side, it means that it is a full moon, and if it is completely black, it means that it is a new moon, that is, the moon is not visible at all. If there is a young moon in the sky, then the silver stripe appears only slightly on the pointer ball (as if we can see the narrow sickle of the moon). And so on…. Isn’t it great?

The moon pointer shows that it is a new moon, that is, the moon is not visible at all. Next to it is a pointer with a hand and the sun.

The moon pointer shows that it is a new moon, which means the moon is not visible at all. Next to it is a pointer with a hand and a sun.

What to see next to it. 1) The clock is located in Prague on Old Town Square . There are more than a dozen sights to see on this square. 2) There is a museum for adults about 70 meters away. It can be visited only by those over 18 years old . 3) At 75 meters there is a free observation deck on the roof of the hotel “At the Prince’s” . Actually there is a restaurant, but some people use it as an observation deck. 4) 220 meters away is the Týnský dvor . There you can have a beer in a quiet atmosphere and, after walking through it, get into the church of St. Jakub, where on the wall hangs a dry hand of man. 5) 230 meters away is the Havel market . It should go there because this market sells souvenirs. And it is very old (it will soon be 800 years old).

How to get to the Prague Astronomical Clock

The chimes are located in the Old Town at Old Town Square . This is the most famous historical district of Prague.

The chimes themselves are a very good reference point for the start of many routes to various attractions in the Old Town. It is also a good place to make appointments under them.

How to find Old Town Square, is written in detail here . And the diagram shows where the clock tower is located on this square.

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Where on Old Town Square is the clock.

Where is the clock on Old Town Square.

Prague Astronomical Clock

World famous Prague Astronomical Clock is one of the symbols and pride of Prague. The oldest still operating astronomical clock in the world, the Prague Astronomical Clock (Pražský orloj or Staroměstský orloj) is built in the very early 15th century.

The Prague Eagle is located on the south side of Town Hall on Old Town Square and consists of three parts: the upper part of the astronomical clock features a moving figure of the twelve apostles every hour, in the center is the astronomical dial, and below it is the calendar dial. The Prague Astronomical Clock is a true technical marvel as it indicates the time, date, day of the week, astronomical cycles, position of the sun, phases of the moon and holidays of the Christian calendar.

A little bit of history

The oldest part of the Prague chimes is the astronomical dial and mechanical clock. They were created in the very early 15th century by the watchmaker Mikuláš of Kadáň and the mathematician-astronomer Jan Šindel, and the sculptural decorations were made by the masters of the famous Czech architect Petr Parlerž, who worked on the construction of such famous Prague landmarks as St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge. Initially the Prague chimes did not work very well, were often broken and were out of order for long periods. At the end of the 15th century they were repaired by the watchmaker Jan Růže, better known as Master Hanús. He also added a lower dial and the first moving figure to the Prague chimes. He was thus looked upon as the creator of the chimes for almost the next five centuries.

Prague Eagle

After the death of Master Hanus and his assistant, the Prague chimes were repeatedly stopped and repaired due to the lack of experienced caretakers. In the mid 17th century, during another repair, a rotating moon system was added to the astronomical clock, showing its phases, and additional wooden moving figures.

In the 18th century, the Prague Astronomical Clock was in a critical condition, and at the end of the century, during the rebuilding of the Old Town Hall, it was about to be destroyed. The world famous Prague landmark was saved by the employees of the Prague Clementinum. They succeeded in having it repaired and were able to partially restore the clock’s function. At the same time, twelve figures of the apostles appeared in the upper part of the astronomical clock. The Prague chimes underwent a complete overhaul in the second half of the 19th century: all parts of the clock mechanism were restored, the chronometer was installed, the lower dial was painted and the rooster figure was added.

Prague chimes at the end of World War II

However, during World War II the Prague Astronomical Clock suffered perhaps the most severe damage in its centuries-long history. On 8 May 1945 the Old Town Hall, the tower of which then housed the radio transmitter of the Prague insurgents, was shelled by German troops. The ensuing fire damaged the building and the astronomical clock. The figures of the Twelve Apostles and the lower dial were destroyed completely, while the astronomical clock was badly damaged. Fortunately over the next three years talented craftsmen were able to restore the Prague chimes. They restored the clock mechanism and restarted it, created new figures and dials, and today the Prague chimes are ¾ composed of the original parts.

Light show on the facade of the Old Town Hall to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Prague chimes

The upper part of the astronomical clock

Researchers believe that the stone angel at the top of the clock and the carved stone images around the astronomical clock face were the work of sculptors from the workshop of Petr Parlerz, while the other decorations on the Prague clock came much later. The sculptures decorating the Prague chimes were made over several centuries, they were restored and re-made, and it is impossible to see the general idea in them now. However, some things can still be interpreted accurately with a high degree of probability.

According to medieval beliefs, any building had to be protected from the influence of unfavorable supernatural forces by decorating it with various security elements. On the Prague chimes, a basilisk, a rooster and an angel perform guarding functions. Two basilisks on the sloping roof of the astronomical clock are mythical creatures with a snake body, bird’s beak and wings capable of turning both man and animal into stone with a look. Another “amulet” under the very roof of the Prague chimes is a gilded rooster, a symbol of courage, because it is with the first cry of the rooster that the dark forces that reign in the night disappear. But the main fighter against the dark forces and, at the same time, the oldest statue of the astronomical clock is the stone angel at the top of the Prague eagle.

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Astronomical dial on the Prague Astronomical Clock

The astronomical dial is an astrolabe driven by a clockwork mechanism. A ring with the signs of the zodiac, an outer ring with Arabic numerals, a ring with Roman numerals, pointers with sun and moon symbols, and a pair of hour hands with a gold hand and a gold star at the ends move around the colored astronomical dial, which represents the Earth and the sky. The diameter of the astronomical dial is more than two and a half meters.

Astronomical clock face on the Prague chimes

How can you tell the modern time from the Prague chimes? Pay attention to the outer edge of the astronomical dial, on it there are golden Roman numerals, which show the modern Central European time. However, unlike regular clocks, the Prague Astronomical Clock has two sequences of Roman numerals, from I to XII, so the golden hand indicating modern time makes only one revolution around the dial per day. Also, there is no minute hand on the astronomical clock.

Astronomical clock figures representing Vanity and Stinginess

Along the edge of the astronomical dial are stone sculptures of imaginary and real creatures. It is believed that this carved stone decoration was also created in the workshop of Peter Parlerj. Each of the creatures in this decoration carries its own meaning, and some of them have protective functions. You will see here a lion, a dog, a cat, a toad, gargoyles, a devil and even a devil. Unfortunately, not all the images have been fully preserved to this day, and some of them cannot be accurately identified.

On either side of the astronomical dial of the Prague chimes are moving allegorical figures. The leftmost figure is Vanity, it looks at its reflection in the mirror. According to another interpretation, this figure depicts a magician looking through a mirror beyond the boundaries of the world of sensation. The second figure on the left, with a sack of money in his hand, is the personification of Stinginess. The first figure on the right is a human skeleton; it is Death, holding a bell and an hourglass. The skeleton is the first moving figure on the Prague Astronomical Clock; it appeared there in the 15th century and illustrates the popular Middle Age theme of the perishability of all things. The outermost figure on the right is a man in a turban, holding a musical instrument in his hand. Usually referred to as the Turk, he is considered a symbol of the sin of pleasure and earthly pleasures. However, it is problematic to interpret all these figures precisely, because they appeared on Prague chimes at different times.

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The Calendar Dial of the Prague Astronomical Clock

Originally, Prague chimes had only one dial, the astronomical one. The second, calendar dial, appeared at the Old Town Hall at the end of the 15th century. It is the lower one in the astronomical clock and allows you to determine the current date, the day of the week, non-working days and Christian feast days.

Calendar Dial of Prague Astronomical Clock

The original calendar, unfortunately, has not survived. The version of the dial that we see with you today was designed during the reconstruction of the astronomical clock in the second half of the 19th century, based on a preserved copy dating back to the mid-17th century. The calendar was painted by the artist Josef Manes, so it is quite often referred to as the Manes dial. During his work, however, Manes deviated significantly from the original artistic design of the dial; the artist wanted to depict medieval Czech rural life on the calendar and, despite criticism and protests, he did not abandon his idea. Very soon after Manes had completed his work, it became clear that the painting was badly affected by the weather and it was decided to keep the original calendar dial of the chimes in the National Gallery and place a copy in the Old Town Hall. It was this dial that burned down in May 1945, and now you and I see another copy of the calendar on the Prague chimes.

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The calendar dial is over two meters in diameter. The calendar of the Prague chimes is made up of several discs: in the center of the inner gilded still disc is the coat of arms of King Vladislav II of Prague, around the coat of arms is another gilded disc with the signs of the Zodiac and a series of twelve circular medallion pictures. They depict the twelve months with scenes of rural life and corresponding events of the calendar year. For example, in January there is the birth of a child, symbolizing the arrival of the new year, and in October the grape harvest. The next disk is in brass and is divided into 365 sectors, corresponding to the days of the year. At the very top of the calendar dial there is a tiny arrow that shows the current day. Also on the brass disc are the names of Christian festivals and the names of important saints, and the inscriptions of non-working days are in red. In the past the keeper of the Prague chimes turned the discs by hand one click each day. Nowadays all the discs except the central one turn clockwise, making one complete rotation in the course of one year.

The Prague Astronomical Clock Calendar, like the Astronomical Clock, is decorated with four allegorical figures: to the left is the Philosopher with a pen and a scroll and Archangel Michael with wings, shield, rod and sword, to the right is the Astronomer with a telescope in his hand and the Chronicler with a book.

A performance of moving figures

Every hour on the Prague Astronomical Clock is a true medieval spectacle, attracting crowds of tourists. During the chime of the clock, figures of twelve apostles appear in pairs, one after another, through small windows placed on either side of the stone angel. Each of the apostles holds in his hands a traditional attribute or symbol of his passions. The figures adorning the astronomical clock face of the Prague chimes also begin to move as the Apostles move: the Vanity figure turns his head from side to side and looks at himself in the mirror, the Stinginess figure shakes his money-bag, the Death figure nods his head, turns the hourglass over and rings the bell, and the Turk negatively shakes his head. The performance ends with the rooster’s cry and the chime strikes the hour.

The legends of Prague chimes

Of course, there are legends about Prague chimes. The most beloved character of these legends is the figure of Death adorning the astronomical dial. It is said that if the Czech country is facing hard times, Death is bound to nod his head to give a sign. It is also said that every year on the day of their execution, June 21, the ghosts of the 17th century Estates Rebellion come to the Prague Astronomical Clock at midnight and check the clock’s precision: if it is right, the counts remain safe for their country, but if the clock is out of order or not precise, the ghosts go back to their resting place in grief.

But the most important belief about Prague Astronomical Clock is that if the clock in the Old Town Hall stops, the Czech Republic suffers a major disaster. To prevent this from happening, the Prague chimes are monitored by an expert board of Prague’s best watchmakers, and a weekly preventive inspection is conducted.

How to get there:

Staroměstské náměstí, 1/4, Prague 1. The nearest metro station is Staroměstská (green line). The nearest streetcar stop (#17 and #18) of the same name is Staroměstská.

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