Le Gros Horloge – The Medieval Astronomical Clock Of Rouen

Le Gros Horloge (the Big Clock) is an ornate astronomical clock located on an archway in the French city of Rouen, capital of Normandy. A Gothic-style masterpiece in design and engineering, the clock is one of the proud centrepieces of the old town of Rouen. With pedestrians passing underneath the arch over Rue du Gros-Horloge, this gilded clock is free to visit and admire for anyone wandering the streets of this historic city in Normandy.

Urban sketch of Rouen astronomical clock Le Gros Horloge Clock Face

One Of France’s Oldest Astronomical Clocks

Le Gros Horloge started life as just a clock mechanism without a face, built in 1389 by Jourdain del Leche, a French clockmaker. The 2.5 metre (8.2 feet) wide dial contains one hand that takes 24 hours to complete one revolution. Work on the clock was completed by Jean de Felain, a more experienced craftsman, who became the first ‘governor’ of the clock.

It wasn’t until 140 years later that the clock had a facade added to the design. It was also moved to its present location on the archway in 1529. There are two identical dials to see, one on each side of the arch. Despite the clock keeping very accurate time, it was electrified in the 1920s to keep it running even more seamlessly. Most recently, the clock underwent a major works in 1997 to restore and repair it.

The Belfry Of Rouen

The old part is the city is rich with history, with many notable events taking place here. Rouen is the final resting place of Joan d’Arc, the city where she was burned at the stake in 1431 (Le Gros Horloge was only 42 years old at this point). Nearby Rouen cathedral was a favourite painting haunt for Claude Monet, who reproduced the architecture many times in his works. During WW2, Rouen was targeted by German bombers, destroying much of the city. Miraculously, the clock survived any damage.

The Belfry (Le Beffroi) was built between the 14th and 15th centuries , with the main arch added in 1527. In 1862, it was listed as a historic monument. It houses the bells that ring across the city, and the inside of the tower can also be visited. The exhibition rooms of the museum inside the belfry displays the clockmaker’s workshop, the bells, as well as the mechanics behind the clock. Climbing up the tower is a great chance to enjoy a panoramic view of the city.

Drawing of the Rouen astronomical clock archway Le Gros Horloge
The Rouen Astronomical Clock

Dials Of Le Gros Horloge

The central clock face displays a golden sun with 24 days, each of which represents one hour of the day, and is indicated by the main clock hand. Directly above the main clock is a silver and black sphere which indicates visually the phases of the moon.

Below the clock face is a cutaway which shows the current day of the week, depicted by a Roman god. Monday is the moon, Tuesday is Mars, Wednesday is Mercury, Thursday is Jupiter, Friday is Venus, Saturday is Saturn, and Sunday is Apollo. Sheep are featured prominently as wooden carvings (and even on the end of the clock hand), representing Rouen’s history as a centre for wool production.

J.M.W Turner’s Painting Of Le Gros Horloge

In 1832, English Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner captured Le Gros Horloge in a work of ink, gouache and watercolour. In Turner’s work, he depicts the astronomical clock on its arch, the cathedral rising behind, and the busy pedestrian street life below.

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Normandy’s capital Rouen is a city with a rich history. In the heart of the old town is one of the city’s most treasured historic masterpieces, Le Gros Horloge. This 14th century clock is easily seen by pedestrians passing through the medieval streets below, and views from the Belfry are certainly worth exploring too!


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