Symbology of the past … or the present as well? - central part of the clock něco

Around the astrolabe, we can see a circular gallery of Parléř’ plastics. All of them are made as seen from above, some of them are very close to each other. Not all of them are identifiable, either due to time or due to their own fantastic character. 

Those of them which are distinct represent a diverse animal community. At the top of the circle there lies a resting lion. pes, lev, capA lion always has an unequivocal position within the animal kingdom in mythologies and symbologies – the position of the king and guardian. It was regarded in this way by all civilizations since the Stone Age. It emanates dignity even when resting. A real lion can rest really well, it is used to resting twenty hours a day… and why not, it is the king we are talking about. This is how it is depicted on the clock as well. Close to the lion, there is another unequivocally guardian animal, a dog.  It is assumed to be the first domesticated animal. Besides vigilance and protection, it also represents fidelity. As three-headed Cerberus, he guarded the entry to the nether world; a black dog occurs in legends as a guardian of treasures. A dog at the feet of a knight means natural death; death in fight was usually symbolized by the well-proven lion. Christian ideologists somewhat blotted the dog’s reputation because they adopted the wild, savage and stray dogs as a symbol of foulness, bloodiness and grubbiness. kočkaThe protective line cockerel-angel-lion-dog could be linked with the cat, although it is in the lower part and quite distant from them. A cat also sometimes guards treasures but it is not so reliable. It is a symbol of independence, perhaps calculative and false attachment and guilefulness. In ancient Egypt, cats were sacred animals; the Middle Ages credited it with the salvation of the Noah’s Ark, when it caught the mouse biting the ark’s wood. Black cat is a companion of magicians and witches. On the astronomical clock, the cat has its head upright, though it is somewhat deformed and over-rotated. It has a counterpart on the clock, a panther or a tiger – anyway, another cat –resting on the western side on the same level.

Next to the lion, there is a peculiar figure with a snake-like body and a pointed and conical hat. The hat of a similar shape – the Phrygian cap – is usually connected with the revolutionaries in France in the 18th century. The name, however, originated in mythology, from Phrygians and their King Midas. draciIt became a symbol of freedom in the Roman Empire where the master granted his slave freedom and liberty by giving him a hat. Parléř’s companions perhaps also considered the hat as a symbol of exoneration and advancement, a metamorphosis from an earthbound and profane snake to a human. It would be quite convenient for us because there is no clear symbol of a snake on the clock. Christianity attributed the snake the position of a vile, earthbound, sinful, immoral and diabolic creature – in other words, completely negative – creature, as well as a tempter who gets defeated in every conflict. Thus the saint’s victory over all impure powers is more distinct. Now we can easily proceed to dragons, also creatures with a negative reputation. According to medieval imagination, dragons evolved from snakes; they just developed wings and one or more additional heads. The reinterpretation of the symbols is perhaps most remarkable in the case of snakes and dragons because in ancient civilizations, and above all in China and Japan, they are regarded as a symbol of the celestial sphere, rain, fertility and power. It often appeared as a part of Emperors’ and supreme officials’ heraldry.

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However, snakes and dragons did not lose their positive values in spite of all these slights. Since antiquity, Asclepius’ snake has remained to be the symbol of doctors and pharmacists, and Wales has a beautiful red dragon on its flag mons. On the astronomical clock, there are two little dragons; they discreetly support the lining of the astrolabe. They appear to be almost harmless but the company around them is warning and almost ominous. Are they warning us, mortals, who are approaching the threshold of the nether world where dark powers rule and demons reside? They are fallen angels, condemned by God. All ancient societies had their experience with entering the nether world; let us remind mythological Orpheus; Mascarons, fanciful faces with devilish expressions, are quite common on Gothic cathedrals. They are usually aloft; they repel and fight off dangerous external elements. An element, flying by and seeing that the place is already engaged, looks for another place to go. Similarly fanciful companions in their heights are gargoyles. They repel by their appearance and their figural, bestial and monstrous form is almost boundless. Let us leave aside the fact that it was also a functional and practical device protecting the brickwork against moisture. They are also present on the St. Vitus Cathedral in large numbers; the cathedral was the main working place of the Parléř’s stoneworks.divous

These stone monsters are poorly visible in their heights. The astronomical clock is, in this scale, a miniature and thus we can watch them closely, from a few metres. Similarly, they can watch us, short-living creatures, and they warn us that the boundary is right here. They are accompanied by earthbound and night creatures. A sleeping bat with a reputation of a vampire, a transformed devil, which drinks blood and can transform into other animals. A frog, a Christian symbol of sin and heretics, who remain – in the form of frogs -  in mud and croak off their lies. dábelThis animal also suffered from an alteration in interpretation. In ancient Egypt a frog was a symbol of salvation, resurrection and long life. A hedgehog is also a night creature; it is considered to be a protector of household happiness but its fastidiousness, greediness and even aggressiveness and anger prevail. A misshapen face on the east and a wild man on the west considerably emphasize the warning signals against dark powers. A wild man, no matter if it is a forest man, green man, fiery man or Pan of ancient Greeks, has always been a symbol of natural, forest and underworld powers. kostlivec

And in the centre, there is a devil, underneath the astrolabe, the circle of the world, on the very edge of his realm. An animal face with his ears pricked up and menacingly bulging eyes. He is on his own, as if he did not need any other companions. Again, let us remind the skeleton once again, although we have already mentioned it several times. Let us not consider it a symbol of death and the end but a warning that all things around us are evanescent. From the moment of our birth, we are approaching the end, the mundane end. The bell and sandglass emphasize its Memento mori. Just like the ancient Chronos, the god of time. Our skeleton dates back to Gothic era but it was not until Baroque when this symbolic message was fully developed. 

text a foto: Stan.Marušák

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