Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Orloj

I am presently in a city that takes my breath away. This city is Prague, the capital of the Cheque Republic. Seeing that I have only been here for a day I am not in a position to report in any detail about the wonders of this city or its people. This will hopefully fall on the shoulders of a guest blogger writing crime stories based here or elsewhere in the Cheque Republic. My blog will be thus be brief as the only thing I am really able to share is a recollection from a previous visit, a story that sticks to the brain as it combines two elements from separate sides of the spectrum of human accomplishment – the wondrous and inventive nature of our minds and the horrid, cruel selfishness we unfortunately possess as well. It is a story about a 600 year old mechanical, medieval clock named the Orloj.

The Orloj is probably the best known tourist attraction in Prague, with the possible exception of the Charles Bridge, and it is also known as the astronomical clock – telling far more than just the time, which coincidentally is probably the only thing this clock fails to clearly depict. The clock is built into the tower of what used to be the city hall and its origins date back to 1410 and it is the oldest clock of its kind which is still operated by the original clockwork (600 year old) and even the astronomical dial shaped like an astrolabe survives in the original form. The clock’s main function when commissioned was to depict with precision when the sun was at its highest point each day and as can be seen from the photo, it is made up of three main parts: the walk of the apostles (top part), the sphere (clock dial in the middle) and the calendar (bottom part).

Beautiful in its own right while immobile the clock becomes even more masterful on the hour, when an animated show involving carved wooden figures takes place. This involves an appearance of the 12 apostles whom bless the city from the two small doors that open to portray a procession of six apostles each, as well as movement from 4 figures situated on each side of the clock dial itself and the calendar. These figures represent elements that were considered to be “menacing” for Prague when the clock was erected, namely: Death (taking the form of a skeleton which rings a bell), a Turk (who shakes his head), a Miser (who looks at his bag of coins) and Vanity (which admires itself in a mirror). Unfortunately I have not come across any explanation regarding the Turk, why he was conceived as a threat or why the representative movement involves shaking of the head. Come to that, I have no idea either why vanity or a miser would have proposed a threat to medieval Prague. Once the apostles have finished their blessings and the “threatening” figures their movements, a rooster crows and the chimes of the hour are heard.

The Sphere (clock dial) represents astronomical phenomena such as sunrise and sunset, the time, movements of the sun, the phases of the moon, the equinoxes, the seasons, the days and the zodiac. It involves three clockwork rotations that are beyond my understanding and hence ability to explain, but to give you an idea of the complexity, each of the three co-axial wheels (same diameter) are driven by the same pinion but use a different number of cogs (365, 366 and 379) depending on what they are to represent (the sun, the moon and the zodiac). At the time the sun was believed to orbit the earth.

The calendar at the bottom contains symbols for the 12 months and it also has four wooden figures, these are immobile and are supposed to represent virtues as opposed to the threats described above. These virtuous figures are: a chronicler, an angel, an astronomer and a philosopher. The calendar is a later addition, being added in 1870.

The above is by no means a good or complete description of the wonders of this ancient clock. I will merely ask that you take my word for it that it is an amazing feat of craftsmanship and astronomical prowess, incredible considering that in 1410 the oil painting had yet to be invented and the prototype of eyeglasses were another 40 years into the future. And how was this awarded? By gouging the clockmaker’s eyes out to ensure that he would not make another one for another city. This was done at the request of the city council no less.

However, the clockmaker managed to get a bit of revenge as he supposedly asked his apprentice to take him to the clock where he damaged it badly, cursed it and finally died while touching it (probably from an eye-wound infection). The clock did not operate properly for hundreds of years and those who tried to repair it either died trying or went mad.

For every plus out there there seems to be a minus.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Please stop reading if you are bored by the history teacher's obsessive need to explain things.

    If anyone is not tired of it, I have some explanation of the things on the clock. The Orloj clock was created before the Reformation so Christianity was Christianity for everyone. The themes on the clock worked for everyone in the Christian world. That may be why the city fathers went so far to make sure a rival city didn't get one.

    A clock marks time. The Miser (Avarice) with his coins and Vanity looking at itself in the mirror are sending the message that the things people believe are valuable in life are meaningless because everyone is going to die. Time flies when you're having fun worked for them, too. Death has the bell to bring this to the attention of the people but no one is listening. Avarice and Vanity shake their heads because they don't believe that Death is ringing the bell for them since the things of this world should protect them.

    The Turk represents the Ottoman Empire, well-known for its advances in medicine and science. They are there to remind the Christians of the city that the secular knowledge of the Turks is a barrier to their entering heaven because they are concentrating on the things of this world. Because they are not Christians they are losing time by not learning about the teachings of Christ.

    The figures are an extraordinary telling of the basic teachings of the Christian church: things of this world are fleeting and if you are a Christian you are one of the lucky people because the study of medicine and science are impediments to faith.

    For an American, this is another humbling reminder of how young and crass we are as a nation. Columbus was 62 years away from finding the western hemisphere (although we know that people of the Nordic countries, including Iceland, had already found it and didn't think it was worth bothering with).


  2. Cheque Republic ? I know things are getting expensive, but I the correct spelling is Czech Republic.

    I'm lucky enough to have a Czech wife and my son that was born in Prague, and as I write this I'm sat in my house on the outskirts.

    Yrsa, I hope you get the chance to get away from the tourist trappings of Prague's centre and enjoy some the castles, lakes and forests if this beautiful country.

    Last year one of my friends was married at the old town hall. It really was the most fantastic event, and far from the rushed tourist event everyone thought it was going to be. Their photos were taken in front of the clock and to keep the area clear they employ a security guard. He's the most unusual character, as he looks like a hobo but I think in a past life was a professional comedian. If only the tourists understood what he was saying in Czech !

    Anyway enjoy your visit, and this lovely weather.

  3. I am her in Prague, shocked to realize that this is my 7th summer after years of teaching some of the best students ever. It is sublime, and the comments about such things as the clockare fun. There is a cranky remark by Kafka that calls Prague an old crone that keeps calling you back. And back. Well, it's more like a old time fairy princess.

  4. Beth--

    Thank you for the illuminating explanations of the symbols. My first guess about the Turkish figure had been that when a Turkish army besieges Vienna, Prague gets nervous.

    But after your reading your explanation--it was envy of science (disguised as piety), not fear of conquest--I looked it up and found that the siege took place in 1529.

    I can't speak for the other readers, but any time the urge hits, please, teach away.


  5. Thanks, Lenny.

    I came across the picture of the clock in a world history text book. Research in those days wasn't like it is now but anything that might interest ninth graders was worth tracking down.