Astronomical Clocks – Literally and Metaphorically

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Discover Kuriositas
Clocks are clocks are clocks – or so you may think. However, some clocks are astronomical both literally and metaphorically. Here is a great selection of astronomical clocks of Europe.

The term astronomical clock is one that is used fairly loosely. Effectively any clock that shows astronomical information – as well as the time – can be so classified. They can show the location of the sun in the sky, for example. In addition to that they can show the position of the moon – and further information such as its phase and its age. Others go further and show the current sign of the zodiac or even go as far as showing a rotating map of the stars. We will begin with perhaps the most famous example, the Orloj of Prague.




To say that this clock is astronomical is, perhaps, stating the obvious. Another word that might describe the Prague Orloj is exquisite. The first and perhaps most astonishing fact about this astronomical clock is that it was finished and in place in 1410, over eighty years before Columbus made his voyage of discovery to the Americas. The first thing that draws the eye is the dial at the center of the clock which shows the positions of the moon and the sun. What makes the Orloj a magnet for visitors to the Czech city is the clockwork show of the figures of the apostles, which on the hour parade themselves. There are other moving sculptures too – plus a dial which pitted with medallions which represent the months of the years.

It is said that unless the citizens of Prague look after their Orloj that evil will descend on their city, which may go some way to explain the superb condition of the clock. There has of course been much restoration over the years. During the Prague uprising against the Nazis in 1945, incendiary fire was directed at the town square and much of the clock was damaged. It was only after years of painfully intricate restoration work that the clock came to be what we see today. For example, the figures shown here of ‘death and the Turk’ were almost completely destroyed in the bombardment.

Lund, Sweden



A slightly later example of the astronomical clock can be found in Lund Cathedral in Sweden. It is generally thought that the clock here was completed and working by 1424, perhaps a little later than Prague but a significant achievement nonetheless. Its full name is the Horologium mirabile Lundense and again major restoration work had to be done to get it fully functioning again. It was put in to storage in 1827 and it took almost a century to get it back to its rightful place. The clock plays music from the smallest organ in the church twice a day and when this happens the three wise men and their servants pass by the figures of Jesus and Mary. Below you can see them in action. To think that this sort of mechanics was created in the fifteenth century is almost mind boggling.

Two knights at the top of the clock mark the hours and the astronomical part of the clock show the phases of the moon – and where and when the sun will set – among other things. The lower third is the calendar. Our medieval ancestors could, with this, work out when religious holidays would fall. It can still be done today as the board of the clock has to be replaced every one hundred years. The present board, shown below, will run out in the year 2123. Some calendars do not end in 2012, after all.

Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg Cathedral has, over the centuries, been home to no less than three astronomical clocks. The first was erected in 1352 and worked for over two centuries when the second and more ambitious clock was installed in 1547. That itself stopped working in 1788. The third and present clock was installed in 1838 and was the culmination of a life’s ambition for its creator. If only the average household had clocks that only had to be replaced twice in six hundred years.

Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué started the build the current clock in 1838. He himself was born in 1766 and had, since a child, wanted to build a new clock for the cathedral. It was a dream that was to be realized fifty years in to his life – a life time, but that is what it took to familiarize himself with the mechanics, mathematics and clock making skills that were necessary to undertake the task. Before starting work on the clock he and his team of thirty took a year in preparatory design. It paid off because the new clock was completed in less than five years. The clock itself was inaugurated in 1842.


Olomouc, Czech Republic
Back to the Czech Republic for the astronomical clock of Olomouc. Of course, when the clock was first built in 1420 there was no republic. The town was the ancient capital of the country called Moravia which sounds like somewhere characters from the TV series Dynasty might get married. The main town square is home to this amazing exterior astronomical clock. Again, as the centuries have progressed the clock has been remodeled and this has taken place in Olomouc about once a century.

The Czechs took a lot of serious damage from retreating Nazi troops in the final days of the Second World War and in 1945 they found themselves on the run from the Russians in Olomouc. In a fit of desecratory petulance they opened fire on the clock and pretty much destroyed it – the remains can be seen in the local museum. Czechoslovakia, as it was in the late 1940s, became a puppet of the former USSR. When the clock was rebuilt it was done with the usual care and attention – of course. However, the religious and royal figures that once adorned the clock were replaced. In their stead came athletes and workers, representatives of the soviet ideals in place at the time.

From a distance the clock looks as ancient as its history suggests. It is only when you get up close that the realization dawns that the figures are representative of a regime that lasted only half as long as it usually took the good citizens of Olumouc to get around to a once a century restoration. The irony is, of course, not lost on the locals.

Wells England
So far we have looked at astronomical clocks that are either in or outside of buildings. The good people of Wells in the West of England decided in the fourteenth century that they would build one that was both. So the astrological clock is shown on the interior of the cathedral (above).

There is a model of the universe (or a least of proposal of one!) on the dial. The sun moves in a full circle against a background of stars. The twenty four hour analog dial goes from one to twelve and then the same again with noon at the top of the dial. Superb design from centuries ago.

However the same mechanism drives the clock which is on the outside of the cathedral, meaning that the people of the town did not have to enter the place of worship in order to ascertain the correct time of day.

Berne, Switzerland

Although the Swiss are more famous for clocks that contain a representation of a certain bird that lays its eggs in the nests of others, the most immediately recognizable landmark in Berne, Switzerland is the Zytglogge tower. The tower itself was built in the thirteenth century with the astronomical clock joining it in the fifteenth. The dial takes the form of an astrolabe which was an instrument used to locate the positions of celestial objects such as the sun, moon, planet and the stars. Given the local latitude it can also work out local time – and vice versa.

The dial itself is gorgeously colored and – as with all other clocks in this collection – has undergone significant restoration over the centuries. Switzerland did not become involved in either of the major European conflicts of the twentieth century but time and entropy have their own rules and as such great care has been taken the keep the clock in pristine condition. If you are not sure what each part does then perhaps the picture below will help explain it.


Cremona, Italy



It is a matter of opinion whether the best has been saved for last, but fact that it is the largest astronomical clock in the world rests in Cremona, Italy. As well as being the largest astronomical clock on the planet it is situated in the second highest red brick bell tower in the world. The tower itself dates from the early thirteenth century but proud locals often boast that it was started in the eight. It is certainly true that archaeologists have discovered older Roman remains at its base.

The clock itself was built by a father and son team - Francesco and Giovan Battista Divizioli. Typically of many astronomical clocks the exterior shows the zodiac constellations, with the sun making its way through them.

So, there you have some of the most remarkable astronomical clocks in the world. Apologies if your favorite has been omitted. Please tell us if it has in the comments section below and we will endeavor to include them.

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