Something Old: An Obsession with Prague’s Astronomical Clock
It is 10 minutes to the hour, and a crowd of hundreds has gathered around the Astronomical Clock in Prague’s Old Town Square. Every face is turned up: watching, waiting.
That corner of Prague’s Old Town hums with voices. Everyone is anxious, shifting where they stand as they wait to see what will happen at the top of the hour.
It’s raining a little, but no one seems to mind. We’re all here for a very specific reason.
The Astronomical Clock stands out against the dull brown stone of Old Town Hall, as it has since the early 1400s. Its golden accents gleam in stark contrast to the dreary weather.
There are numbers, Roman numerals, and astrological signs. The golden sun at the end of one of the long hands is aimed right at the feet of the resolute skeletal figure on the side.
The skeleton’s bony hand moves, tugging on a rope that is supposedly attached to the bells that mark the hourly show.
The doors at the top of the clock open and the 12 wooden apostles make their rounds. Each appears briefly at the small opening, staring out at the crowd with sad, emotionless faces.
The figures on the sides of the clock cock their heads back and forth. Vanity in front of his mirror. Greed with his sack of coins. Death the skeleton. And Lust with his instrument. If you look closely enough, you can see the gears moving their mechanical heads.
Then the golden rooster above the clock crows.
The show is over.
The whole thing lasted less than a minute.
Everyone in the crowd stands in the wake of the rooster’s crow, as if in shock. They can’t believe that was it. A few chuckle. They waited for this?
Slowly, the crowd disperses.
An hour later it will form again. And again. And again. At the top of each hour, all day long.
Others might leave disappointed, but not me. I love it.
It’s the simplicity of the show and the complexity of the clock itself — the fact that something that looks trivial to people today would have been so impressive hundreds of years ago. It’s the history behind each detail — all the functions and uses that have been lost over time. It’s that a short, yet important scene in “The Night Circus,” one of my favorite books, takes place in this very spot.
There’s something magical about something so old.
I linger at the base of the Astronomical Clock. I wonder when, or if, I’ll be back to see it again.
Then I turn, the clock behind me, and walk away.