Prague’s 600-Year-Old Astronomical Clock Is Filled With Secrets, Symbols, and a Hidden Message

July 13, 2020 Updated: July 27, 2020

The 600-year-old astronomical clock in Prague is a major tourist attraction in the UNESCO World Heritage site of the city’s historic center. Yet many tourists and even residents of the city might not exactly know how intricate and loaded with symbolism it is.

Since the clock, locally known as the “Orloj,” started ticking in 1410, it has only stopped a few times for repairs, first in the 18th century, then after the devastation of World War II, and again in 2018. Despite a global pandemic and uncertainty about the future, this wonder of the world remains a constant.

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People attend the unveiling of Prague’s restored astronomical clock on the Old Town Square on Sept. 28, 2018. (MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images)

To those who haven’t been fortunate enough to see the clock, it might seem strange that a time-keeping device could be so special, but this is no ordinary clock. The clock is based on a mechanical astrolabe, a device that dates back to antiquity, designed to track the movements of the Sun, Moon, and other heavenly bodies.

To modern eyes, the clock may look confusing, as it was designed in the 15th century, when no one system of telling time had yet become dominant. One of the clock’s dials tracks time in the Old Bohemian fashion, which starts the new day from sunset, while another reckons time in the ancient Babylonian system: from sunset to sunrise.

Other features indicate modern Central European time and star time, which tracks the movement of the constellations resulting from Earth’s orbit.

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The clock features figures such as Vanity, the Miser, the Turk, and the Rooster, which move, and stationary ones such as Archangel Michael, the Astronomer, the Philosopher, and the Chronicler. (S-F/Shutterstock)

Part of the clock’s appeal, besides its incredible longevity, is its beauty. Not simply a functional object for telling time, the clock is adorned with beautiful gold leaf script for the numbers, and its dials are painted beautiful colors.

The clock’s decoration also continues to offer moral lessons for citizens of Prague and visitors to the historic city. In addition to displaying the 12 constellations of the zodiac, the clock is also adorned with sculptures, including Death with an hourglass in hand, as a reminder of the brevity of life.

Another sculpture with a mirror represents Vanity, highlighting the pernicious obsession with self that existed then as now.

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The calendar plate below the clock features a church calendar with holidays and the names of 365 saints. (Vladimir Sazonov/Shutterstock)

If all this intricacy and rich symbolism weren’t enough, one of the statues of the 12 Apostles on the clock reveals a secret message from the past. During the 2018 repairs, the statues were taken down for restoration, and that of St. Thomas was examined with X-ray, and a metal case with a message was found inside.

As reported by Prague.tv, sculptor Vojtech Sucharda, who was responsible for the post World War II restoration, had tucked away his vision for a fuller restoration as well as criticism of the late 1940s communist government.

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The clock traces the movement of the sun and moon. (Lev Kropotov/Shutterstock)

Now that Czechs are celebrating the end of lockdown and look forward to the city reopening to international tourists, the clock will be there as always, telling time and telling stories about the city’s past and present.

Prague’s clock master and head of the 2018 restoration, Petr Skala, put it perfectly to The New York Times: “A clock measures time. And time is the most precious gift we are given.”

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