Mánes’ calendar plate

The visual appearance of the Prague astronomical clock developed in steps. At the time of its making, the clock probably had just the astronomical dial. The lining around the dial bears a number of motives known from the works of Parléř’s stoneworks in Prague. The stoneworks terminated its operation in Prague in 1419.

Another construction stage came at the end of the 15th century. The machine underwent large modifications performed by Jan Růže alias Master Hanuš; the calendar dial was added at that time. On the lining around the dial and on the facade of the astronomical clock, Late Gothic style prevails but it did not supersede all the elements of Parléř’s work. The new appearance later supported the dating of the making of the clock to 1490, which was commonly accepted for almost five hundred years. The original plate has not been preserved; its appearance in 1659 is known from later carvings. The circular copper plate has a diameter of 220 cm; it is divided into 395 segments and turns clockwise; in earlier times, the clock﷓master manually turned the plate by one segment every time. The second circular plate is fixed and bears the town sign from the times of King Vladislaus II.

Along the perimeter of the plate, there is a narrow annulus with 365 beams with marked calendar data in the segments by individual months. On the inside, there are numbers of days in months and so-called dominical letter. Furthermore, the saint to whom belongs the fixed liturgical feast day is verbally indicated. On the very edge of the perimeter, syllables of the Cisiojanus are marked. This part of the clock was designed by the poet Karel Jaromír Erben, the Prague archivist at that time. The new plate was created during the extensive reconstruction in the middle of the 19th century that gave the astronomical clock the essential part of its present appearance. It was designed and painted by Josef Mánes (1820–1871). The painter considered this job as a prestigious one and wanted to create a monumental piece of art for Prague. He made a number of preparatory sketches when working on all of his paintings. He had a great affinity to the nature, to human labour and common people. He wanted to express human rural activities in the Middle Ages. It was a popular topic in his times. It was present in folk calendars, almanacs and proverbs in many forms and was attractive for Czech society in the times of the National Revival.


By clicking on the picture, the first of the series of detailed photographs of individual months opens. By means of the control elements in the open picture you can launch a slide show or open individual months via links that follow.

Mánes preserved the basic visual appearance in the spirit of the old plate. The dominating element here is the calendar cycle with twelve circles (Ø 42.5 cm) with motives of monthly works and twelve smaller circles (Ø 24.3 cm) with Zodiac Signs. Mánes also found inspiration in coloured miniatures from the parchment manuscript of the breviary by the Crusader grand master Lev from 1536. Mánes’ allegorical paintings are comprehensible and parrot the old motives by their content. The month of January is a celebration of the birth of a child as the New Year; in February, a farmer warms his leg by the fire and his wife brings firewood; in March, the farmer ploughs the field; inApril he fastens up trees; in May, a young man decorates his hat and a maiden collects flowers; in June, the farmer cuts grass; in July he mows wheat with a reaping‑hook; in August he flails the crops; September is the time of sowing; in October he reaps grapes; in November he fells an oak tree and in December he kills a pig. The landscape elements in the background remind motives from Bohemia – the stronghold Bezděz, Czech Central Mountains, the Říp Mountain, Kunětická Mountain or the Trosky Castle.

He approached the Zodiac Signs in a very peculiar manner on the plate. He used just an abstract golden background. The depictions of animals are complemented with small and playful chubby figures – putti, which he had already used as allegorical creatures in his earlier paintings. The figures in Aquarius, Sagittarius, Scales and Virgin are painted with billowing clothes and without the little figures but there are, of course, two putti in Gemini. Thus he emphasized the difference between the months related to the farmer’s everyday life and the ecliptic signs.střed kalendária

Josef Mánes signed the contract for the work although the offered compensation was half the amount he required and the work was not exactly specified in it; the contract also allowed considerable modifications later. He even did not have sufficiently large studio to place the plate so he worked provisionally in the premises of the town hall. Moreover, he faced objections and remarks of the members of the Committee, namely its chairman Dr. J. Böhm, the director of the Prague observatory, the burgomaster Dr. V. Bělský and also the German press in Prague. The painter was a nervous and frail man and these circumstances had an adverse impact on him. He did not want to abandon his artistic approach. He even did not heed the advice of his friends who reminded him of an old legend which says that who significantly impacts the astronomical clock will not live long. He might have considered withdrawing from the work but the desire to finish it was stronger. Anyhow, the plate was not finished for the inauguration of the clock on 1st January 1866. It was prepared for inauguration in May; however, the Austro-Prussian War broke out shortly after and the plate was inaugurated on 18th August. It was a great celebration with a festive mass, music bands, parade of civil brigades, firemen, riflemen, representatives of authorities and university professors. The author, already ill Josef Mánes, missed the celebration, though.


Postcard – Čedok from 1929. Note the legibility, or – to be precise – the illegibility of the calendar dial.

Shortly after, opinions began to occur that such brilliant work should not be exposed to weather conditions and a copy should be made. Thus was emphasized the artistic value of the work and its singularity within Czech art. This also unwittingly reminded of an essential problem of the Prague astronomical clock that it was not protected against weather, which also applied to the rest of the outer decoration and the machine. By the time when the town council decided to make a copy, the painting had been seriously damaged by the weather. The copy was made by E. K. Liška at a price higher than had been Mánes’ compensation. The installed copy was re﷓inaugurated on the New Year’s Eve in 1882 together with a new feature, the cockerel which crowed and beat its wings for the first time. Maybe somebody among the festive guests remembered that the author of the original, Josef Mánes, had been dead for eleven years.

Text, photo & repro: Stan. Marušák 

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