Monday, July 06, 2009

Notre Dame and Robo-Jesus

Of all the wonders inside the Notre Dame de Strasbourg, by far the best known is the Astronomical Clock. It was originally built in the 1500s, but because the iron gears within had worn down over the centuries it broke down, and was rebuilt in the 19th century.

The clock is a mix of high-art and kitsch, mechanical spectacle and pious wonder, all assembled with awe-inspiringly meticulous, effort and inspired brilliance.

First, the kitsch. The main attraction of the clock happens every day at 12:30 PM: while impressive, it is in effect a Holy Cuckoo Clock.

The original clock cock, now in the Rohan museum

I can’t narrate it much better than the video below, but in essence, a cherub and an old man strike their repective bells four times. The old man passes in front of the figure of death, to be replaced by an infant, to symbolize the new hour. Death strikes his bell twelve times. Above, the dozen apostles pass in front of Jesus, each bowing to take His Robotic Blessing, legs swinging to mimic walking. A rooster-automaton flaps its wings and crows three times. At the end of it all, Our Clockwork Saviour makes the sign of the cross to bless the assembled crowd.

It is surreal, sublime, and ridiculous. It occurs every day at 12:30, rather than on the hour, as the Priests were so sick of their congregations peering into the corner to watch the show that they changed the time so as to prevent the interruption.

A slightly closer, though blurry view of Death (lower level) and Robo-Jesus (upper level). On the bottom, the half-moon

To modern eyes, this aspect of the clock seems more than a little ridiculous - meaningless razzamatazz, designed to entertain. Yet I can’t help but notice that inevitably, when the carved hand of Death strikes the hour, a chilled hush will fall over even the most cynical crowd of digital-camera-wielding 21st century travelers.

Very few of the hundreds of the visitors who see this show every day stick around to inspect the clock with any rigour, which is a shame, because they miss the true wonder of the device. Robo-Jesus is a mere ornament – the clock was designed to do no less than to describe the workings of the known universe.

All of the known heavens are here: the black globe in front show the positions of the stars from Strasbourg. The disk on the clock’s base show where the sun is relative to Strasbourg, while arrows demonstrate the relative positions of sunrise and sunset. A golden ring rotates throught the year – Apollo’s arrow points at today’s date, on which the day’s Saint is inscribed.

A rotating carousel spins through the week, the Norse Gods chasing each other on their chariots, each emblazoned with a day of the week. Above this, a ball – half black, half golden, describes the phases of the moon, spinning over 28 1/4 days.

Are we there yet?

Above this, another massive disk. A golden metal sun adorns the middle, orbited by representations of the known planets, some completing their rounds every 88 days, others taking 11 years.

The solar system, or what was then known of it. Note the astrological symbols. Painting in the corners represent the four seasons

The calculations to design the mechanics for any one of these time periods is impressive enough. But they weren’t done as one: the machines work together. The clock keeps track of the moving holidays, such as Easter. Easter happens on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Spring equinox. That means that the mechanism that keeps track of the relative position of sunrise and sunset is correlated to the one that keeps track of the moon’s phases, which is correlated to the one that keeps track of the days of the week.

The calculations involved are mind boggling – each wheel in this machine has to be the right size, turning at the right time, meshing with thousands of other wheels, keeping track of units of time as short as one minute and as long as dozens of years, and yet be adaptable to measure moving dates.

Of course, that’s not all. The clock is decorated all over with paintings, all of which are on the theme of time – specifically on how nothing man does can withstand it. Creation is balanced with Judgement Day. The Great Empires of Persia, Assyria, Rome and Greece appear, largely to remind people that they all fell into history’s dustbin. Seemingly healthy people luxuriating with their wine and food are stalked by the shadow of death.

It all kind of puts your Timex to shame, doesn’t it?

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