The Astronomical Clock in the Old Town

Astronomical Clock of Prague

On Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) is located one of the most famous monuments of Prague, the Astronomical Clock (Pražský orloj).
The clock seems difficult to understand. Let’s look the meaning of each dials and the history of this clock.

Astronomical Clock

Read arrows of time

You can read all this information with the Astronomical Clock:

  •     Local time designated by the golden hand over the Roman numerals
  •     The twelfth hour day, designated by the position of the sun on golden curves
  •     Time in hours old Czech designated by the hand on the golden Gothic numerals
  •     The position of the Sun
  •     The position of the Moon
  •     Moon phase
  •     Astrological zodiac sign
  •     Sidereal time, indicated by the small gold star
How we read that?

The astronomical dial

The astronomical dial is the main dial, it has the shape of an astrolabe. An astrolabe its Greek etymology and a tool to take the height of the stars and can therefore represent the movement of the stars.

In the dial four components are moving:

  •     external rotary circle
  •     zodiacal circle
  •     a Sun moves a needle to a golden hand
  •     a Moon which is located on another needle

The original function of this mechanism still dating the XIII century was not giving the correct time. It was to give the movement of the sun and the moon around the Earth at the time thought was that the Earth was the center of the universe. You can see also see the Earth in the center of the dial represented by a blue circle. The black circle represents the portion of the day non visible between the two parts orange.

The upper part of the dial in blue represents the day and Arabic numerals represent the hours of the day time or one twelfth of a day. You can also see Latin inscriptions on the left which means dawn and sunrise (ortus and aurora) and right entries mean twilight and sunset (occasus and crepusculum).

Main dial

Roman numerals are made to indicate the local time in Prague, the XII on the top represent noon and the bottom represents midnight.

The circle turns in the main dial. On the dial are the signs of the zodiac. At the end of the dial is 72 parts gold. These 72 parts represent about 5 days.

The black circle outside the astronomical dial also moves with the numbers Gothic and represents the number of hours elapsed since the beginning of sunset.

The Sun moves along a needle is used to indicate the astrological sign in which we stand. Golden hand allows the end of the needle to indicate the time on the dial.

Moon has more or less the same meaning but moves more quickly to indicate the moon phase.

Around the Clock

The clock is decorated with four characters around it representing each:

  • Vanity represented with a mirror
  • Greed represented by a purse of money
  • Death represented by a skeleton holding a bell
  • Desire, represented by a Turkish holding a mandolin.

All these figures have been added during the nineteenth century.

There is also a calendar astronomical dials which was added in 1886, created by Josef Manes one of the most famous Czech painters. On this calendar you can see the arms of Old Town Prague represented. You can observe circles representing a scene of peasant life in Moravia to indicate the days of the year. Around this calendar are fixed four characters which an angel holding a sword.


Each Hour

Funny thing that attracts the crowds on Old Town Square, every hour from 9:00 am until 9:00 p.m., you can see the characters come alive.

  • Death animates his bell to announce the death
  • The stingy person shows his purse
  • The vain man admires himself in the mirror
  • The Turk with his mandolin shakes his head to show that he continues to monitor

But there is not only these characters who are coming alive but windows open and twelve apostles parade. There is also St. Peter who makes an appearance on two windows.

These animations were added in the nineteenth century. And finally to end the animation, a window opens with a rooster crows to announce the death. The rooster was added in 1882.

There is also the top of the clock men who are playing the trumpet.

My explanations further illustrate through this video here.

A little advice, certainly the atmosphere of the Old Town Square is sublime with nightfall. But if you want to enjoy “a little more quietly” animation, I suggest you come in the morning before 9:00, it is less crowded in general.

Main Characters

The history of the Clock

Element of the recent ones have been added in the nineteenth century, but the clock was made in 1410 by Nicolas Kadau. The clock was perfected in 1490 by Hanus (Jan Ruze). Legend has it that have blinded the clockmaker  after reshuffle the clock, so that it can not replicate.

But what is still original on the clock which has spent more than VIII century?

The upper disk of the astronomical clock is the only original element which dates from the fifteenth century.

For the rest of the clock has suffered the damage of time. Especially when the Nazi regime occupied Prague in 1945, they set fire to the clock. The clock was repaired later in 1948 but also in 1994 and 2006.

But the clock continues to fascinate and remain extraordinary, despite the repairs. It seems unique in its old technology and full of religious symbols. The clock always surprises the technical process of the time it took to achieve and the wealth of information it can disclose if we can read it.

This clock shows that Prague is truly a capital full of history, but as the whole Czech Republic. Do you want to see another Astronomical Clock in the country? It is less known but in Olomouc you can find another unique astronomical clock 🙂

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