The Prague Astronomical Clock

The astronomical clock in the Old Town Square in Prague is a tourist trap, and the square is full of people taking selfies of themselves as the clock strikes. A schematic of the clock shows how it measures:
– time
– zodiac, solar and lunar movements, sunrise and sunset.
It also has figures representing vanity, usury, death and lust. On the hour it chimes, these figures move, and all twelve apostles parade rather eerily behind two windows, looking down briefly on the square beneath.

It was apparently designed by the mathematican Jan Sindel in 1410, whilst he was rector of Charles University.

During the period 1378 to 1417, when there were two simultaneous claimants to the Papacy, in Rome and Avignon, Charles Univerity in Prague was divided betwen the two Popes. This was also the priod of the first reformation. Figures such as Wyclif, 1331 – 1384 and John Hus raised discontent with the simony of the church: they argued against the wealth and political influence of the church, and for the right of individuals to interpret doctrines rather than rely on the church to do so, to seek their own salvation rather than buying absolutions. (Wycliffe was partly responsible for one of the first translations of the bible into English. Too early for printing, alas, though 150 manuscripts still exist.)

Of the reformers, Wycliffe was one of the very few to die of natural causes.

in 1409 King Wenceslaus physically split up the (formally multinational) university, in effect expelling all foreign students. This was apparently done to support the reformers and apparently at the request of Hus. Hus was elected rector in 1409; Sindel succeeded him as Rector in 1410, the year he designed the clock. In 1412 (by which time Sindel was no longer Rector), Hus delivered an address at Prague University repeating the words of Wycliffe, who was finally declared a heretic in 1415 by the Council of Constance, which also reunited the Papacy under a single pope. Hus was also condemned for his writings and was tried and judicially murdered by the Catholic Church, after he had gone to the Council of Constance under a promise of safe conduct.

Wikipedia says that “At the beginning he [Sindel] was a supporter of John Hus but later he stayed Catholic. He avoided religious disputes and preferred science.” Despite this he was forced to leave Prague by the Hussite Wars and worked in Nuremberg as a doctor for 13 years. One likes to assume that Sindel, sickened by the violence he had seen, turned to medicine to redress the balance, but maybe that is too modern a view. (He had specialised in medicine since 1406.)

The reason for this historical background is to correct my own first assumption that the clock represents some sort of secure world view. The apostles, the signs of the Zodiac, the power of mathematics to predict the sunrise, all suggest a secure mind set. But the background was a retreat from horrors, past and to come, the horrors of decaying faith, anarchy and cruelty.

Perhaps Sindel threw himself into the abstract world of spherical geometry (or what passed for this in 1410) in order to escape. Politically it was not controversial, and the certainties of mathematics did not require him to make moral decisions or to take dangerous stances. And a clock is not only a symbol of order, but also an embodiment of mechanical rules. It runs ‘like clockwork’, in fact.

I found myself comparing it to my Android phone (on which I took the photograph last week). This too provides information I need to regulate my life (time, sun and moon movements if I want them) as well as the sort of predictions previously associated with astrology (weather forecasts, commentary about political events and financial asset movements).

What the phone does not provide, however, is any icon of belief. I could of course access any number of religious websites, but that’s not really my point. What, I wondered, are the modern symbols, archetypes or myths to replace the Apostles or the symbols of death and lust? (Remember, Hus was not rebelling against religious belief: he was trying to return to its roots.)

The best answer I have come up with so far is advertising, promising us fulfilment and happiness in return for brand loyalty. Is this too cynical?

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