There are a few famous clocks around the world, but none to equal Prague’s 15th Century masterpiece of timekeeping. World-famous Big Ben may have skyline prominence and tourist hordes, but it can’t touch Prague’s Astronomical Clock for its delightful combination of golden filigree wheels, vibrant colors, exotic symbols, and once-an-hour entertainment value.
At a time when machines were incredibly rare and the most complicated gizmo was a hand-operated printing press, this multitasking clock must have seemed like a mechanical miracle. Located on the Old Town Hall, it was a point of pride for the city, and travelers came from far and wide not only to check the time but to see the spectacle.
But don’t be deceived – this clock is not just another pretty face. Six hundred years ago it was a huge technological accomplishment that combined science, art, astronomy, and astrology. And to round out the package, it delivered a fair dose of religious admonition on the hour.
Like all clocks, it has the standard hour and minute hand, but all the other wheels, hands, and symbols make it an astrolabe, which is a model of the universe.
It keeps good ol’ “when-is-lunch” time, Babylonian time, Old Bohemian time, and sidereal time (star time) used by astronomers to locate celestial bodies. And metaphysical types could check the status of their astrological sign on the zodiac ring. As clocks go, it has it all.
And because the clock dates back to Europe in the 15th Century, it would have been a wasted opportunity to miss delivering a religious message or two.
So on the hour, the clock goes into action: two windows slide open and the 12 apostles float past; a skeleton rings the Momento Mori (remember death) bell; and a golden rooster crows to finish the show.
In today’s world time may feel like a tyrant that rules your life, but in the late Middle Ages keeping time was a new idea. Clocks with their reliable times added some predictability and order that, for good or bad, is still with us today. This extraordinary clock was one of the first steps along that path, and it’s a marvel to see.
Visit Prague for its old-world charm, hillside castle, and the Charles Bridge, but don’t miss the Astronomical Clock and its fun and fantastic show.
James & Terri