Admiring the

great astronomical clock of Besançon

presented by Marcus Hanke

© text and pics: M. Hanke, 2004


Throughout the history, astronomical clocks expressed very specific philosophies or dogmas. The huge public clocks of the late Middle Ages and the early New Age, mostly erected easily accessible in the cathedrals, served educational and religious purposes. They should demonstrate to the people how God created the cosmos as a huge and perfect clockwork, while the Holy Church had the key to its understanding, showing Earth's and the people's place in the cosmos. Later, the wealthy cities contestet this monopoly of time and cosmos successfully, and the astronomical clocks were moved from the inside of the cathedrals to the outside of the city's towers or townhalls. their character, as placing the cosmos in their centres, was left unchanged. Thus, the common layout of these wonderful timepieces concentrated onto astronomical displays, be it an astrolabe or a planetarium, with the time display itself not being the dominant element.

Although the astronomical clock in the Strasbourg cathedral (right) has also been made in the 19th century, it represents the typical style of late medieval clocks, similar to the clock in Prague (left)

In the cathedral of Saint-Jean in the French town of Besançon, capital of the region Franche-Comté, however, we find a most magnificent and world famous astronomical clock, representing an entirely different philosophy. Before going into detail on this, some historical background is needed.

It is well known, that the Swiss horological industry, especially in the Geneva region, was introduced by French refugees, mostly protestants fleeing from the policy of catholic restoration after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. A second wave of talented and most welcomed refugees reached Switzerland during the turmoil of the French Revolution in 1789. Far less known, however, is that the centre of the French watchmaking industry in the French Jura was founded by Swiss refugees. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon invaded Switzerland and installed a centralist regime, dissolving the old cantonal constitution. This was followed by a period of unrest and religious conflict, during which many watchmakers sought their safety in France, especially in the region of Besançon. Around 1900, two thirds of all French timepieces were produced in this city, which secured more than 12,000 jobs.

When the old clock of the town's cathedral Saint-Jean stopped working in the 19th century, it was of course a matter of tradition and honour to succeed it with a very special timepiece, nothing less than the most complicated clock in the world. Cardinal Mathieu ordered this work to be done in 1858, but there was barely a progress. Finally, Auguste-Lucien Vérité, who was not a local clockmaker, but came from Beauvais, was contracted to complete the piece. Vérité rebuilt the clock almost from scratch, in his own workshop in Beauvais, which of course was seen as a serious disgrace in Besançon, which considered itself the nation's clockmaking capital.

The clock was installed in the cathedral in 1860, but nonetheless the work on it continued until 1863. Since then, it has been reorganised and restored twice, the last time in 1966. Immediately after the completion of his work in Besançon, Vérité constructed an even larger clock, with very different appearance in the medieval cathedral of his hometown Beauvais.

After this historical introduction, let's have a look at the mechanical marvel: The clock is 5.80 metres high and 2.5 metres wide. Contrary to the famous medieval public clocks, and even to Vérité's subsequent work in Beauvais, the clock is not located in the cathedral's aisle, but hidden upstairs, in a room of the large spire.

Also the appearance is very different from the aforementioned clocks: the only display typical for other astronomic clocks is an orrery, an astrolabe is missing. Even the orrery is not placed in the centre, but squeezed into a small compartment in the clock's base, barely visible for the visitor. The focus of this clock cleary is a scientific one, concentrating on the Earth and its movement, with the cosmos around being but a decorative element.

The central group of dials with the perpetual calendar

Instead of astrolabe and tellurium, the clock features 70 dials, showing 122 indications; among them the local time of 17 places over the world, times and height (!) of the tides in 8 different French ports, perpetual calendar, leap year cycles, times of sunrise and sunset.

Time display of eight cities, with solar eclipses shown in the two dials at the top

Time display of another eight cities, with the leap years and leap year cycles shown at the top

Hours (left) and height (right) of tides shown for four French ports. The small boats in the pcitures are rocking, animated by the clock's mechanism

All this is driven by a mechanism consisting of more than 30,000 pieces, which also transfers the time to the cathedral's tower clock.

Altogether, the clock leaves a technical, engineered impression. Not astronomic education, but concise reference seems to be the primary motivation behind the clock. The spectator is more reminded of a mighty control panel with gauges, found in Capatin Nemo's submarine. We are confronted with a representative of the industrial age, not of the medieval spiritual world. Therefore, the large groupe of 21 automatons on the top does somehow mismatch the clock's style. Every full hour, the jacquemarts move, with a deviation of less than a second per day.

This clock alone makes Besançon a place worth a detour, yet the rest of the town is attractive as well. So whenever you find yourself in or near the French Jura, remember visiting the Saint-Jean cathedral, and the magnificent clock of Maître Vérité.


Copyright July 2004 - Marcus Hanke - all rights reserved