Writing and photos by Alex Hanson
Walking through Prague’s Old Town Square is like diving into the pages of a gilded storybook. The wide spaces between the tall, elegant, centuries-old buildings gives the impression of a purposeful manipulation of what pedestrians on the street can and cannot see— as though you were one of many dolls in a very large dollhouse, subject to the story being told around you by an unseen player. It is this feeling that makes the square’s famous astronomical clock seem so mystical.
The medieval astronomical clock, created in 1410, is on the side of a tower of Prague’s Old Town City Hall. It is a huge clock face surrounded by statues, with two windows and a golden rooster above and a calendar with zodiac details below the astrolabe. In a realm lined with gray cobblestones and bronze statues, the clock’s bright blue face and gold details make it one of the most eye-catching parts of the square. Every hour tourists and passing locals gather around the clock to watch its hourly toll, comprised of ringing bells, statues becoming animated, and the two windows opening to reveal statues of the apostles rotating in and out of sight of the crowd below.
The clock’s animation is a story told hourly: the astrolabe tells the cyclical tale of the sun moving through the context of the zodiac. Death, embodied by the skeleton statue, rings the bell, while the man next to him shakes his head to deny death’s call. The calendar below the astrolabe labels the seasons according to farmers’ schedules, which would have been essential at the time of the clock’s creation, and the zodiac. It all comes together to present a medieval interpretation of the sky, celestial objects, and the religious stories that medieval Europeans used to explain these phenomenon.
Today, when I am in an astronomy lecture analyzing the creation of helium in the sun’s core, I don’t think of the apostles or concepts of a human’s control over their own mortality. I have a knee-jerk reaction to categorize the scientific as something separate from the religious or the philosophical. Therefore, my initial thought when I stand under the astronomical clock is to think of it as something solely of the past, but I can’t ignore the fact that observations of our universe and storytelling are still inseparable, like neurons that have been firing connections since the beginning of humanity. Through astrology, science fiction, and educational series like “Cosmos,” people are still looking to the stars and framing stories and ideas around their observations.
Prague’s astronomical clock is one of the few physical reminders that society’s understanding of our universe may be constantly developing, but our desire to fit stories around it will always hold strong. When I stand under the clock and look around, I’m surrounded by people that are all experiencing that same astrolabe, framed by the stories it’s been telling for hundreds of years. Science’s understanding of the universe may be more complex or more accurate now than it was in 1410, but I surrender myself to the story of the clock when it strikes the hour.
If you want to learn more about the Prague Astronomical Clock, this site goes in-depth to the history and symbology of the clock, as well as its machinery, design, and architecture.