Jost Bürgi & Hans Jacob Emck's Equation Clock by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

Jost Bürgi & Hans Jacob Emck's Equation Clock

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

According to modern schemes of classification, scientific instruments and works of art (with the possible exception of fine Swiss watches) exist in separate worlds. Such a sharp line did not always divide them: Jost Bürgi's astronomical clock from 1591 was both a cutting-edge technological achievement and an esthetic object with an artistic program that imbued it with further meaning. It was a collaboration between a clockmaker, a goldsmith, an astronomer, and, ultimately, a philosopher-prince. It measures small in size (4 3/8" x 6 1/8" x 6 1/8"), but into it is packed a great deal more than clockwork.

The astronomical clock was commissioned by Willem IV, the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. The clock in common use prior to this time was the sundial, but because of the earth's tilt and the eccentricity of its orbit, sundial time does not run at a constant, even rate like 24-hour clock time. In the sixteenth century, clock time was even more eccentric than sundial time, since the uneven regulation of early mechanical clock balances made Renaissance clocks run an average of twenty to thirty minutes too fast or too slow per day.


Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of A Thousand Words: Reflections on Art and Christianity (St. James Press, 2023). She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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