Sunday, January 31, 2016

Prague's Astronomical Clock

To the modern eye this may not be so thrilling, but I need you now to take a step back about, oh, 600 years or so and appreciate this industrial marvel.

The year is 1410. Sigismund I, King of Hungary and the Romans sits on the throne. The astronomical clock is commissioned to showcase Prague's prowess and superiority.

Mikulas of Kadan, clockmaker, and mathematician Jan Sindel were the people responsible for the medieval planetarium on view today. However, their work would not be fully functional were it not for master crafstman, Hanus Carolinum, who was responsible for repairs and upkeep of the clock, working some 80 years after the original construction, and was the only man living then who knew the intricacies and the mechanical workings of the piece.

Rather than risk his expertise being spread all over Europe, legend has it that Prague's old town councilors blinded Hanus with a hot poker and cut out his tongue so that he would not be able to recreate or impart knowledge about the clock for or to any one else.

Understandably irked by this show of gratitude for upkeeping what is arguably the greatest mechanical mechanism of its day, Hanus asked his buddy to take him to the clock where he tinkered with some pieces and effectively shut down the clock for 200 years.

Obviously someone was eventually able to get the clock working again, and every hour on the hour the clock does its thing for the delight (or sometimes 21st century disappointment) of tourists.

What exactly are you looking at?

Well, originally the clock was the sphere and clock dial showing the major astronomical movements of the time. Of course, as everybody knew, everything revolved around the earth, which is why the clock has both the sun and the moon revolving around the earth as well as the ecliptic revolutions, each part an independent mechanism.

In the clockwork there are three co-axial wheels. The first shows the position of the zodiac and rotates roughly every 24 hours. The second indicates the sun and rotates also once everyday, depending on the length of the sun in the sky for that particular time of year. The third rotates with the rotation of the moon and the ball, half-silvered and half black, displays lunar phases and rotates every month.

Below the clock is a combination 365-day Christian calendar and Czech zodiac complete with 365 days of Saints, in case you were short on holidays.

In the early-mid 17th century the wooden statues were added to reflect typical 17th century fears. From left to right we have Vanity, Greed, Death, and Infidel Turk (a.k.a. "The Piper). Because, you know, in 1657, if thinking yourself too pretty, coveting money, and the Grim Reaper didn't get you, you could be pretty certain the Turks would.

The figures of the Apostles were added at the tail end of the 18th century. In order of appearance, the saints come as follows. From the left window: St. Paul, St. Thomas, St. Juda Thaddeus (patron saint of hope and impossible causes), St. Simon (the patron saint of lumberjacks), St. Bartholomew (patron saint against nervous diseases and twitching), and St. Barnabas (patron saint against hailstorms). From the right window: St. Peter, St. Matthew  (patron saint of tax collectors and accountants), St. John  (patron saint of booksellers), St. Andrew  (patron saint of fisherman), St. Phillip  (patron saint of hatters), and St. Jacob  (patron saint of teachers).

About 60 years after that came the golden crowing - or ceremoniously tooting - rooster at the top of the clock.

All in all, the whole ordeal take about a minute and I find it really spectacular, kind of in the way one appreciates Hitchcock's terror in an era of Tarantino.

Nowadays, there are legends associated with the clock that, when it stops working - if it stops working - bad times will befall Prague. So, let's just hope that time keeps ticking. Literally.

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