Prague’s Astronomical Clock: Keeping Time the Very Old-Fashioned Way

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.

Disciples rotate past the windows for all to see.
Disciples seen rotating inside the clock tower.

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. 

Happy Trails

James & Terri

Go to our blog’s main page.

Photo Credits: 1. Moyan Brenn 4. Alexandra Tran  5. Ray Harrington 7. Leonard G. 8. Øyvind Holmstad 9. W.Rebel 10. Andy’s Awesome Adventures 11. Krissekrekola

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

61 thoughts

    1. Yvonne, for my money it alone is reason enough to visit Prague, and you’re so right that “clock” just doesn’t do the job. It’s a huge tourist draw so the word has gotten out regardless of the name. ~James

    1. Peggy, we saw the clock years ago as well (not sure of the year), and it was badly in need of cleaning. However, they’ve done a major restoration and cleaning since then and it’s wonderful. I suspect the city government have figured out what a tourist draw it is and consider it’s money well spent. ~James

  1. What a wonderful sight it must be on a sunny Sunday morning! On a completely different note, I do love your rotating posts in the sidebar. I don’t recollect seeing that elsewhere. Neat trick!

    1. Funny you mention the weather Jo. We’ve been to Prague a couple of times, and the weather on the first trip was absolutely frigid. We were there for record-setting cold, and it took some serious determination to even leave our hotel. However, the last trip was perfect weather making for good photos. It all evens out I guess.

      Also, glad you like the sidebar widget and thanks for taking a look at the main page. ~James

      1. Love your post on Prague’s clock that’s of great interest for all people! Indeed, what a great investment city officials made renovating the historical timepiece.

  2. When we went to Prague a couple of years ago it was covered in scaffolding so I think it has been cleaned recently. One of the many reasons to visit Prague.

    1. Anne, it has been cleaned and the photos you see are the result. We saw it years ago and it definitely needed a good clean. I think they also did some restoration as well, which is probably what the scaffolding was all about. ~James

    1. Alice, there’s an incredible array of symbols on the face of the clock, some I recognize, but many I don’t. It makes me wonder what the average 15th Century peasant must have thought.

      Glad you liked the photos. I travel with a small travel-zoom camera which is really handy for taking these kinds of photos. ~James

    1. Maggie, thinking about not only the technology involved in actual clock, but the tech available for its fabrication makes it even more of a masterwork. There’s some uncertainty about who actually built it and when, but whatever the answer, the builder was a genius. ~James

  3. It is interesting, James and Terry, to think of clocks as a work of art and a mechanical masterpiece rather than a tool to control how we live our lives. Obviously, we can’t ‘turn back the clock,’ so to speak, but it is fun to contemplate. Interesting post. Thanks. –Curt

    1. Curt, I’ve written a few posts about these early clocks, and I enjoy them because they always get me to thinking about the nature of time and how we relate to it. Before clocks people marked time by days, the passing moon, and seasons. But as our clocks have gotten more accurate, our lives have changed to reflect the importance of shorter and shorter intervals. The passage of time never changes but our perception of it certainly does. Interesting stuff. ~James

    1. Darlene, I don’t know the extent, but I think it was damaged in the war. But obviously a great deal of work has been done to restore it. If you ever get over this way, it’s a good reason to stop in Prague. ~James

    1. Kathleen, I’m glad you had the opportunity to see it. Photos don’t really do it justice, and even though the crowds can be annoying, they certainly add to the festive atmosphere when the hourly show starts. I love the bell-ringing skeleton. ~James

  4. Prague has been on my travel wish list for a long time, somehow it has eluded me.
    I have heard of this amazing clock and would love to see it, thanks for reminding me to ensure a visit soon.

    1. Gilda, given all the ground you and Brian have covered lately, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before Prague pings your radar. And when you make it, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It’s very popular (for good reason) and can be crowded, so it takes a bit of planning to avoid the crowds, but it has some unique sights and it’s a good base for exploring the area. Take care and be healthy. ~James

    1. Lexie, this is exactly the time of year when we normally start planning our long international trip for spring. We both truly miss it, but with the omicron surge that still rages and all the country to country variability in restrictions, we think that, for us, it’s still premature to take a trip overseas. We’re thinking about a long cross-country camping/hoteling trip when temps warm a bit. The good news is that it’s inspiring us to see some sights that we’ve missed. ~James

  5. Loved this one. We had Prague on our list, but never made it (because of Covid Lockdown. I am highest risk. So exploring our corner of Uk, and some stays further afield – at great expense! We’re not called ‘Rip-off Britain for nothing…

    1. Jackie, it’s interesting that prices for travel have gone up instead of down. I would expect that businesses would be doing anything possible to encourage customers, but honestly, we notice the same high prices in the US, particularly when it comes to hotels, etc. But, glad to hear you’re back out on the road. We just had 10in of snow at our house, so we’ve been sticking close to home. Take care. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Monika and for dropping by the blog. The days around New Years are a good opportunity to think about time, and I’m sure the Prague Astronomical Clock is doing lots of special gyrations. Happy New Year and all the best for a happy and healthy 2022. ~James

  6. The clock was so advanced for its age and I thought it was beautiful – though was disappointed by the clock show which seemed all gimmick and not much more. I also hope the story of the clock maker having his eyes removed so he couldn’t make one for anyone else is untrue!

    1. Hannah, in my research I read a couple of creepy stories about the man who built the clock, and most of them seemed a bit far-fetched. I especially like the one about him being upset about not getting full credit, and to repay city officials he threw himself into the clockworks so the clock wouldn’t work anymore. These are probably all bmade up by tip-seeking tour guides. ~James

  7. Wow. We have yet to make it to Prague, so thank you very much for sharing this: it is clearly a magnificent monument to the best of human ingenuity and ability! And, yet, I’m even more taken with the two extremely intriguing ideas you bring up, the first idea being around time: how we are now slaves to our time measurement implements, but at an early point, having a clock liberated us from being at the mercy of natural measurements (dawn, dusk, etc.).

    1. As I said to someone else, I enjoy these thought provoking ideas about the early days of timekeeping. Before traveling in Europe and seeing all these old clock towers, I hadn’t really thought much about our changing perception of time. Another interesting point is that some of these early clocks didn’t have a minute hand, only one for the hour. Was this just a mechanical limitation or a subtle transition to the idea of keeping close track of time? ~James

      1. Indeed! And that begs the question: if the minutes were invented by the Sumerians, what were they measuring that was not being measured for the next 2-3k years? And how did they measure minutes back then? And how good were their cooks that they didn’t need timers? 😀

  8. Great photos of the Astronomical Clock! I was in Prague in September 2021 and of course visited the clock – there’s always a crowd. Another favorite place I keep returning to there is Vyšehrad – magical atmostphere and views!

    1. Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We’ve been to Prague a couple of times and it’s a magical place. And even though the crowds can be annoying, I certainly understand its popularity. It has that Old-World charm that many travelers are looking for and there’s so much to see, including the Astronomical Clock. ~James

    1. Mitch, it’s a masterpiece in so many ways: timekeeping, engineering, and it’s a standout artistically. I’m sure your wife is happy to have the chance to see it. ~James

    1. Linda, Prague has a lot to see, but for me, this clock alone makes it worth the trip. I’ve seen tower clocks all over Europe, and this one is the far and away my favorite. ~James

      1. Unfortunately I was in a crowd in town square during IFA soccer finals… couldn’t spend time waiting for the figurines to pop out into the rotating sequence.

  9. One of our favorite things to do: line up with the crowd and wait for the hour to strike! We love this clock. But something was missing this past December when we returned for a second visit: the skeleton. And not only him but his three companions. Our guide said they may be cleaning and repairing them. Don’t know. But we missed his signal to get the brief but wonderful show on the road!

    1. Rusha, sorry you missed the skeleton; he’s my favorite. Given our modern sensibilities he’s almost comical, but after a few rounds of the Black Death, I wouldn’t have thought that Europeans would need much of a reminder to keep their spiritual house in order. But then, I guess it never hurts. ~James

    1. Rebecca, you are so right about a Dan Brown novel. I don’t remember it being included, but with the clock’s long history and mechanical intricacies, it would be the perfect literary device. And it even has a tale about the original designer being blinded so he wouldn’t make another clock like it. Good mystery stuff. ~James

  10. A technological masterpiece. It’s hard to imagine all the thought that went into coming up with such a timepiece. I wonder if your average citizen had any understanding of all the wheels and such. How many people know the significance of the Tropic of Capricorn?

    1. Laura that’s a good question, and I’m sure that your intuition is right. I suspect that most people had a difficult time getting into town to see the clock, let alone interpreting the complicated symbols. But it certainly had the WOW factor which is probably mostly what they were going for. ~James

  11. I’d never heard of this clock. It’s complexity is entrancing, and its design is beautiful. I especially like that the disciples and the signs of the zodiac both are included. It brought to mind one of the nine Muses who’s often forgottten: Urania, the Muse of both astronomy and astrology.

    The first time I experienced clocks as art as well as simple time-keepers was in grade school. I grew up in Iowa, and my folks took me to the Bily brothers’ clock museum. The brothers never sold a clock, and never gave one away. They just sat around in those long Iowa winters making fantastic clocks. As a side note, Antonín Dvořák showed up one summer and stayed in the museum building while composing a few little ditties!

    One of my own favorite time and travel stories involves another famous clock. When it came time to leave Liberia, my traveling companion could leave six weeks ahead of me. So, we agreed to meet at Victoria Station in London at noon on a certain day. This was the mid-70s. There were no cell phones, no GPS, no internet. For that matter, there weren’t any pay phones. He went up through northern Africa with some buddies in a Land Rover. I traveled overland through Liberia and Sierra Leone, up to Senegal, where I caught a flight to the Canary Islands and then flew on to London. On the appointed day, we both showed up at noon. I’m still not sure how we did it, but I’ll never forget the sight of “Little Ben”!

    1. Linda, I love the Bily Brothers’ Museum. This museum is a true piece of Americana and the one of the most artistic cures for cabin fever that I’ve seen. Me, I would have seriously thought about accepting Henry Ford’s $1MM offer for a clock and moved to Ft. Lauderdale, but I obviously lack that Eastern European fortitude.

      And your “Out of Africa” story is really amazing. We’ve all gotten so accustomed to instant cell phone and internet communication it’s hard to remember how it was without it. Terri and I lived in Sudan and were involved in a couple of coups which required emergency evacuations. We had to evacuate separately and had to figure out a plan to meet somewhere in Europe without the benefit of knowing the other persons schedule or location. Needless to say, it was a life lesson that we’ll never forget, and it gave us an appreciation for communication that we never take for granted. ~James

    1. Thanks for the comment Randall and for dropping by the blog. I’ve seen a number of these medieval clocks around Europe, but none are equal to this multipurpose masterpiece of timekeeping. ~James

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