The Secret of What Time is it?

DDürer's illustration from his Treatise on Measurement
Dürer’s illustration from his Treatise on Measurement

Keeping time has always been one of mankind’s challenges.  And it wasn’t easy. And it was very complicated in Nuremberg, the city of Albrecht Dürer’s birthplace.

Besides being an extremely famous artist in his lifetime, Dürer was also a famous scientist and mathemetician.  Near the end of his life, he published a four volume set of books called  Underweysung der Messung mit Zirckel and Richtscheyt in Linien, Ebnen und gantzen Corporen (“Treatise on Mensuration With the Compass and Ruler in Lines, Planes, and Whole Bodies”), which was published by his own firm in Nuremberg in 1525. The first part of the third book includes bird’s-eye and profile elevations of pyramids, cylinders, and columns of various sorts (in 1510, in Nuremberg, Dürer had already sketched a spiral column with spherical processes).


Durer's Sundial
One of Dürer’s drawings of a sundial and how to construct it

The second part of the book deals with sundials and astronomical instruments; Dürer had a small observatory at his disposal in the house that he had acquired from Bernhard Walther, a student of Regiomontanus, and could also make use of Walther’s scientific library, part of which he bought.

Dürer was fascinated with sundials and included them in a number of his prints.  What no one has realized until now is that Dürer’s sundials and hourglasses are hidden messages. But we can’t understand the hourglass clues until we understand how people kept time in Nuremberg.

In Nuremberg during Dürer’s lifetime, timekeeping changed rather drastically in the year of his birth, 1471.  The famous astronomer  Johannes Müller von Königsberg, called Regiomontanus, relocated to Nuremberg and worked out a new system of time keeping for Nuremberg.  The work day varied in length according to the season.  Most of the work done by merchants had to be performed outside because of the danger of fire and so Regiomontanus’ time keeping system became extremely important to merchants. Artificial illumination (candles) were costly.


The Clock of the FrauenKirche in Nuremberg
The Clock of the FrauenKirche in Nuremberg

Nuremberg, like most German cities, followed the “Great-Clock,” which counted the hours consecutively from sunrise to sunset.  The day was divided into the two parts, the “hours of the day,” and the “hours of the night.”  During the day, watchmen went about the city and rang bells to indicate the time because there were many work and rest requirements according to law.  What time it was, was extremely important.  The work “days” were longer in the summer than in the winter.

This distinction in telling time would have been known by anyone in Germany during Dürer’s life.  So it should not be surprising that Dürer utilized this knowledge to encode messages in his prints.  His customers would recognize the distinctions.

Dürer’s most famous depiction of an hourglass and sundial occurs in his most famous print, Melencolia.


Hourglass in Melencolia
The hourglass in Melencolia recording the exact time of Barbara Dürerin’s death


Mother’s Death

The hourglass and sundial depicts the exact time of his mother, Barbara’s death on May 16, 1514.  We know this is the exact time because we have one page of Dürer’s private diary, where he records the time of her death.  And we know that Dürer is encoding this information from his Books on Proportion (the hourglass in this picture is represented mathematically in the exact way to record Barbara’s death on a sundial attached to a building in May).

So we know that Dürer was very savvy in depicting time as it was kept in Nuremberg.  How are these clues in his prints?

Knight, Death, and the Devil (Der Reuter, the Rider)

Der Reuter, The Rider, wrongly called Knight Death and the Devil
Der Reuter, The Rider, wrongly called Knight Death and the Devil

The major clue in the print Dürer called Der Reuter, which is known today as Knight, Death, and the Devil, is the hourglass and sundial .   The figure wrongly identified as “Death” is holding up a very prominent hourglass with a sundial on top, which clearly indicates the number “5.”

How was time really “kept” in Nuremberg?  We have the regulations governing building workers in Nuremberg to tell us.  Time was calculated according to the “hours of the day” or the “hours of the night.” And these varied with seasons.

When the day was eight or nine hours long it was spring or fall, the “day”

started at 8 am. as we know time.  When the day was fourteen hours long, it was summer.

Thus in spring and fall, the hours of the “night” lasted 14  hours, and in summer the hours of the “night” lasted 8 hours.  In winter, the opposite occurred.  The hours of the “night” started when the hours of the “day” were over.

In spring, a worker would “have their midday meal when the clock struck three (of the hours of the day, ie. 11 am,) and would return to work at “four” ( 12 noon) “until the  last hour of the day was over (spring, autumn hours-8 or 9 hours of the day).

When the hours of the day were fourteen in summer,  the worker had to be at work “when the clock strikes one (6 am our time), “ eat breakfast at three (8 am), return to work at four (9 am), take the midday meal at seven (noon) and return to work at eight (1pm), have Vespers at 10 (3 pm), return to work at 11 (4 pm), and leave work when the clock strikes one of the night (7 pm).


The hourglass and sundial in the print Der Reuter
The hourglass and sundial in the print Der Reuter, the Rider clearly showing the number “5.”

So let’s take a closer look at Der Reuter (the Rider in German). The hourglass that the figure, with the missing nose and crown holds up very prominently clearly, depicts the number “5.”  What hour of the day is this on the sundial?

We have to know whether it’s winter, spring/autumn, or summer to be able to know.  Do we have any clues in the image to tell us?  Of course.  The foliage in bloom tells us it’s summer hours.

So what does a “5” on a sundial really mean?  First, this can’t be any “hour of the night” because that’s darkness and no image would land on a sundial.  So it’s “day” hours.


What hour of the “day” does a “5” represent?  We know from the documentation that  the 11th hour of the day was 4 pm.  So a “5” represented the TWELFTH hour of the day in summer!

Dürer is giving us a very important message that the figure holding the hourglass is actually connected with the number “12.”  The figure that is associated with a “12” at the time Dürer made this print was the Dauphin of France, Louis XII.  Dürer had already encoded messages about his predecessor, Charles VIII in the Sea Monster.

This is an example of Dürer’s own language, his cipher.  The “five” that is really a “12” is the key clue in this print.

And thus, Dürer also gives us a significant timekeeping clue in the print shown below a woodblock print, known as St Jerome in the Cell from 1512.  See if you can work out what the message is from the hourglass and sundial, what hour of the day or night is it in which season?

St. Jerome in the Cell
St. Jerome in the Cell. Can you work out what time it is?





Text copyright © May 19 2013 Dr. Elizabeth A. Garner, All Rights Reserved




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