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).
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.
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.
WHAT TIME IS IT?