Strasbourg Cathedral and Astronomical Clock

Strasbourg Cathedral or the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg is a Roman Catholic cathedral in Strasbourg, France. Although considerable parts of it are still in Romanesque architecture, it is widely considered to be among the finest examples of high, or late, Gothic architecture. Erwin von Steinbach is credited for major contributions from 1277 to his death in 1318.At 142 metres, it was the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874, when it was surpassed by St. Nikolai’s Church, Hamburg. Today it is the sixth-tallest church in the world. Described by Victor Hugo as a “gigantic and delicate marvel”, and by Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God”, the cathedral is visible far across the plains of Alsace and can be seen from as far off as the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine. Sandstone from the Vosges used in construction gives the cathedral its characteristic pink hue.

The cathedral’s south transept houses an 18-metre astronomical clock, one of the largest in the world. Its first forerunner was the so-called Dreikönigsuhr (“three-king clock”) of 1352-1354, located at the opposite wall from where today’s clock is. Then starting in 1547 a new clock was built by Christian Herlin, and others, but the construction was interrupted when the Cathedral was handed over to the Roman Catholic Church. Construction was resumed in 1571 by Conrad Dasypodius and the Habrecht brothers, and this clock was astronomically much more involved. It also had paintings by the Swiss painter Tobias Stimmer. That clock functioned into the late 18th Century and can be seen today in the Strasbourg Museum of Decorative Arts. The clock existing today originated in 1838-1843 (the clock has 1838-1842, but the celestial globe was only finished on June 24, 1843) and was built by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué in Dasypodius’ clock case, and with roughly the same functions, but equipped with completely new mechanics

Schwilgué made a number of preliminary studies years before, such as a design of the computus mechanism (Easter computation) in 1816, and built a prototype in 1821. This mechanism, whose whereabouts are now unknown, could compute Easter following the complex Gregorian rule.The astronomical part is unusually accurate; it indicates leap years, equinoxes, and more astronomical data. Thus it was already much more a complex calculating machine than a clock. Often the complicated functioning of the Strasbourg Clock made specialized mathematical knowledge necessary (not just technical knowledge). The clock was able to determine the computus (date of Easter in the Christian calendar) at a time when computers did not yet exist. Easter had been defined at the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 as “the Sunday that follows the fourteenth day of the moon that falls on March 21 or immediately after”. Today tourists see only the sculpted figurines of this clock, but behind this ensemble there is an mechanism that engages and that represents one of the most beautiful curiosities of the Cathedral. The animated characters launch into movement at different hours of the day. One angel sounds the bell while a second turns over an hourglass. Different characters, representing the ages of life (from a child to an old man) parade in front of Death.

On the last level are the Apostles, passing in front of Christ. The clock shows much more than the official time; it also indicates solar time, the day of the week (each represented by a god of mythology), the month, the year, the sign of the zodiac, the phase of the moon and the position of several planets. All these automatons are put into operation at 12:30 PM.According to legend, the creator of this clock had his eyes gouged out afterward, to prevent him from reproducing it. Similar legends are told for other clocks, such as the astronomical clock in Prague.In the same room, there is a statue of a man resting his elbows on a balustrade. According to legend this was a rival architect to the one who had built the pillar of angels, the architectural feat of the era, who contended that one single pillar could never support such a large vault, and he would wait to see the whole thing come crashing down.There are several models of the Strasbourg clock, usually with simplified functions. One is in the Sydney Powerhouse Museum .From 1858 until 1989, the clock was taken care of by the Ungerer company. This company was founded in 1858 by two brothers who were Schwilgué’s assistants. Since 1989, the clock has been taken care of by Alfred Faullimmel and his son Ludovic, for the Strasbourg cathedral. Mr. Faullimmel had been employed by Ungerer between 1955 and 1989.

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