The Orloj has endured war, vandalism, neglect, and even gross mismanagement, forcing it into many years, sometimes whole decades of inactivity while the caretakers repaired and renovated it. Major additions and upgrades of the clock took place in 1470, 1552, 1659, 1787 (the year the US Constitution was ratified – feeling young yet?), 1948, 2005, and 2018.
To paraphrase a somewhat gauche American advertising slogan: for six centuries this clock has taken a licking and kept on ticking.
The Orloj consists of two sections, an upper clock (the astronomical clock proper) and a 12-month Church calendar underneath it. You almost need a graduate degree in mathematics or astronomy to figure out the workings of the clock. It is a layered series of concentric and overlapping circles that will leave you in awe of their complex interactions:
- The outer ring of the circle measures slightly under ten feet in diameter and displays symbols for the 24 zodiac signs, indicating the constellations and current season of the year (contrary to today, the zodiac signs had no New Age, occult meaning in the medieval mindset.)
- The inner rim presents a 24-hour clock in Roman numerals indicating the correct hour of the day (it has no minute or second hands);
- The colored inner areas of the face indicate, variously, the times of sunrise and sunset as well as partial maps of realms spanned by stars and planets;
- Revolving around the inside of the large circle is a smaller ring designating the revolutions of sun and moon;
- Tiny models of each heavenly orb dance about the outer rim: the moon actually revolves on the arm to show its phases; the sun has a hand above it pointing to the corresponding zodiac symbol on the outer rim.
Believe it or not, all of these complex mechanisms function in synch with each other in mechanical and astronomical precision (we’ll have to take the experts’ word for it.) As I said, it’s a real marvel.
The average person just knows that the Orloj rings precisely on the hour, every hour of the day, and that is of course its main attraction. Crowds of tourists gather every hour to hear its chimes and see its show.
The Divine Clockmaker
Most of the founders of the American republic were Deists. They believed that God was like a grand clockmaker who invented this incredibly complex world, wound it up like a timepiece, and then sat back and watched the activities play out like the intricate interaction of gears in a finely-tuned machine.
It was their view that God wasn’t much involved in His creation but left it up to us to calibrate and re-calibrate the great clock of human history because He had given man “dominion over the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
The Catholic creators of this clock had a different concept about how the universe worked. In their mind, God was still very much involved in His Creation. God and man worked together: God did what only He could do as the Creator of all things, and man does what he is supposed to do as moral actor and caretaker of God’s creation. God’s grace suffuses every movement of the heavens and leads humanity onward through time toward an eternity with Him.