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Strasbourg Cathedral, France, and astronomical time
Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre-Dame is known as one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in Europe. The Cathedral stands on the exact site of a roman temple built on a little hill above the muddy ground. The first version of the church was starting to be built during 1015 by proposal of Bishop Werner von Habsburg, but fire destroyed most of the original Romanesque building. By the time that cathedral was being renovated (at the end of the 12th century, this time with red stones carried from the nearby mountains of Vosges), the gothic architectural style has reached Alsace and the future cathedral was starting to develop all characteristics of gothic aesthetics. The project of the first cathedral in Alsace was handed to craftsman and stonemasons who had already worked on the also famous gothic cathedral in Chartres.

With the construction of the west front, the cathedral obtained its earliest known display of astronomical time—one that the cathedral shares with many other large churches—the carved reliefs depicting the signs of the zodiac and the labours of the months in the bases of the statues flanking the right portal.


Occupations of the months and signs of the zodiac, west façade, right portal—May, Gemini; June, Cancer; July, Leo; August, Virgo.
Photograph © Ad Meskens, Creative Commons Licence

The most widely known of these astronomical displays of are the cathedral’’s elaborate astronomical clocks. The 14th-century clock included a calendar, a mechanically driven stereographic projection showing the movement of the stars, and pointers showing the positions of the Sun and Moon. Atop the clock was an automaton of a cockerel, which crowed at noon, flapping its wings.

The 16th-century clock added to these elements a rotating celestial sphere on which were depicted all 1020 stars of Ptolemy’’’s star catalogue together with figures of 48 constellations, a disc showing the ecclesiastical calendar for 100 years, and depictions of all eclipses over an interval of 32 years. A stereographic projection of the stars, Sun and Moon, like the one in the original clock, was enhanced with additional pointers showing the positions of all the visible planets and the ‘Dragon’, or lunar node, which served to explain eclipses (Fig. 2). Elements of the case and display were incorporated into the current clock. Although the clock reflected the geocentric model of astronomy, its decoration included a portrait of Nicolas Copernicus.


Astrolabe planetary dial of the second astronomical clock. Detail from Woodcut by Tobias Stimmer (1574)

The 19th-century clock reflected Copernican astronomical concepts. The geocentric stereographic projection of the Sun, Moon, and planets was replaced by a heliocentric model of the visible planets, plus the Earth and Moon, in the solar system. It displayed both uniform civil time and the apparent time indicated by the daily motions of the Sun. The stellar globe now portrayed more than 5000 stars, extending down to faint sixth magnitude ones. In addition, the clock incorporated a perpetual calendar, computing the ‘solar’ cycle of 28 years, the lunar cycle of 19 years, the date of Easter, and other calendrical parameters traditionally found in ecclesiastical computus.

The concern with time that we see in the cathedral’s clocks also appears in its fourteen sundials, which date from the 13th to the 18th centuries. The oldest sundial, dated between 1225 and 1235, marks seven times of prayer in the course of the day, beginning at dawn and continuing until sunset. The 15th century saw the addition of three more sundials, dividing the day into twelve hours from sunrise to sunset. In the 16th century, five dials were installed at the platform level of the tower and three mathematical dials, designed by the builder of the second clock, were installed on the gable of the south transept. The builder of the 19th-century clock, Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué, installed a vertical meridian line inside the entrance to the south transept, marking local apparent noon to regulate the clock.


Astrologer with a sundial, south portal.

Photograph © Coyau, Creative Commons Licence


Three sundials on south gable: altitude/azimuth dial (left), vertical sundial (centre), and dial reading hours from sunrise and sunset (right).
Photograph © Jean-Marie Poncelet, Creative Commons Licence

The display of astronomical time was central to the cultural uses of astronomy in medieval Europe. Strasbourg cathedral, which was the ‘principal element of the nomination’ for the World Heritage Site Strasbourg–Grande Île, embodies these astronomical concepts in three ways. Symbolically, the cathedral’s sculptures bind the zodiac to the labours of the months; at a more direct practical level the cathedral displays astronomical time in numerous sundials; and—perhaps most famously—there is the historical sequence of its three great astronomical clocks.

Notwithstanding this, the description of the attributes of value of the property—both in the ‘justification of value’ from the State Party and in the ICOMOS evaluation—takes a classical heritage approach, elucidating this exceptional Gothic church in terms of the history of art, the history of structural design, the history of urban construction, and the history of medieval Christianity, but does not elaborate at all on the astronomical features of the place.

http://www.em.wikipedia.org, http://www.astronomicalheritage.net, http://www.strasbourg.info

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