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The Strasbourg Clock

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (object)

    • The Strasbourg Clock
  • Description

    Carillon clock; weight-driven musical clock; originally controlled by balance wheel, movement converted to pendulum in 18thC; outer case of gilded brass, engraved with figures personifying the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity), the three worldly virtues (Wisdom, Fortitude and Justice) and the three fates of man on the back.


  • Producer name

  • Date

    • 1589
  • Production place

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 140 centimetres
    • Width: 38.5 centimetres
    • Depth: 38.5 centimetres
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Type

      • Inscription Content

  • Curator's comments

    Text from 'Clocks', by David Thompson, London, 2004, pp. 48-51.
    Isaac Habrecht
    Carillon clock
    Strasbourg, 1589
    Height 140 cm, width 38.5 cm, depth 38.5 cm
    This clock is undoubtedly one of the most important surviving examples of Renaissance clockwork. It was made by Isaac Habrecht in Strasbourg in 1589. Its design was conceived in imitation of the great astronomical clock in the cathedral there, a clock which Habrecht had completed in 1574 under the direction of Conrad Dasypodius, a mathematician at Strasbourg University, who had been commissioned to design a new clock for the cathedral. This domestic version of the cathedral clock is one of two surviving examples by Habrecht (the other is in Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen). It stands more than five feet tall and is a magnificent example of the clockmaker and engraver's art, combining a superb mechanism with a magnificently engraved case of the finest quality.
    As well as the two main dials which show the time separately in hours and minutes, there is an annual calendar at the bottom with astronomical indications in the middle, showing the position of the sun and moon in the zodiac throughout the year, as well as the age and phase of the moon. Above the time dials, a carousel shows the days of the week, each personified by its ruling deity riding in a chariot pulled by fabulous beasts. In the stage above, in its original conception, the Three Magi processed before the seated Virgin and Child as the clock played music after the hour was struck. Now the procession consists of small, rather badly-cast angels who replace the original figures. Above this, the Four Ages of Man strike the quarters on a bell, but here one of the Four Ages has been replaced with one of the Magi figures from the stage below, who now strikes the bell with his incense jar. At the top the figure of Christ appears through a doorway, and at the hour the figure of Death strikes the passing hours on a large bell. When the hours are struck, the two small silver putti on the front move their arms, one turns an hour glass while the other raises and lowers a sickle (formerly a sceptre, now missing). The automaton figures are an impressive blend of the religious and the secular.
    In addition to striking the hours and quarters, the clock plays music at each hour; a setting of the 'Vater Unser' first published in 'Geistliche Lieder auffs neu gebessert und gemehrt' (Leipzig, 1539). The clock is housed in a fine gilt-metal case engraved with Faith, Hope and Charity on the right, Wisdom, Fortitude and Justice on the left, and the Three Fates, Glotto, Lachesis and Atropos on the back. On the front, the emblems of the four ancient empires of Greece, Rome, Asia and Persia surround the calendar dial, and the four seasons fill the spandrel spaces around the main dial. In addition to these lavish decorations, the clock is also adorned with biblical quotations.
    The movement consists of four weight-driven gear trains, for time indication, quarter strike, hour strike and music, all contained in a massive steel frame. The wheels are made of brass which was, by 1589, becoming more commonly used. In later years, perhaps at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the clock was converted from its original balance-controlled verge escapement to have the new pendulum control in order to greatly improve its timekeeping.
    It was long thought that this clock had been made for Pope Sixtus V, but the music played by it and the engraved subjects which decorate it suggest very strongly that it must have been destined for a Protestant prince. The attribution to the Pope was based on the fact that it is known that the clock was in the Papal collections in the early nineteenth century. That a clock playing music written by Martin Luther should be commissioned by a Pope in the sixteenth century is inconceivable. One possible explanation for the existence of the clock in Rome is that during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) the library of the Elector of the Palatine in Heidelberg was seized as spoils of war by the Papal army and taken to Rome. Later it was placed in the possession of the King Willem I of the Netherlands as surety for a loan that the King gave to Herman Kessels (1794-1851) in 1829. Kessels was raising money to fund the exhibition of a massive whale carcass. In 1848, however, the clock appeared in London where it was exhibited at the Royal Society. It was here that Octavius Morgan saw it. In 1853, Morgan wrote the following letter to Augustus Wollaston Franks at the British Museum:

    "I have again inspected the clock and fear that I must give it up from the difficulty of finding a place for it in my house as well as the removal of so large and heavy a thing to so great a distance - but I do so with great regret - for it would be an invaluable addition to my collection. I believe it to be the finest and grandest specimen of ancient clockwork in the world. I mean of course of a moveable kind for I except such horological structures as those in the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Lübeck. It is a genuine production of the date and was made by the same artist who made the Strasbourg clock and somewhat in imitation of it. I have never seen anything like it to my recollection of clocks in the Museums of Brunswick, Hesse-Cassel, Dresden or Vienna. I should like to see it in our national Museum for it is more fit for that than a private collection and I am inclined to think that if placed there and kept in order would be one of the most curious and interesting objects there. I have the refusal of it for one hundred pounds which from its being an unique specimen and so fine and curious a thing I do not think much out of the way for when I saw it some years ago I was asked four hundred pounds for it. I am obliged to give an answer by Tuesday as other parties are after it - some dealers are I believe willing to give that sum for it."

    Unfortunately the Museum was not willing to part with one hundred pounds for the clock. Morgan bought it for himself and took it back to his house, The Friars, in Newport, South Wales. It stood at the bottom of the main staircase until his death in 1888, when it was bequeathed to The British Museum along with the rest of his amazing collection of clocks and watches.
    Octavius Morgan Bequest.


  • Bibliography

    • Leopold bibliographic details
    • Thompson 2004 pp.48-51 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G37

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited: 1992 17 Nov-1993 14 Mar, France, Strasbourg, Old Astronomical Observatory, Le Jardin des Sciences

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number


COMPASS Title: Carillon clock with automata, by Isaac Habrecht


COMPASS Title: Carillon clock with automata, by Isaac Habrecht

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Object reference number: MCC3061

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