Cité épiscopale d’Albi
The tempera-painted twin sundials on the interior pillars of the baldaquin date from 1658 and are unique the world over. One marks the morning hours and the other the hours of the afternoon.
n this they resemble the Castor and Pollux, heroes from Greek mythology, who shared their mortal and immortal time equally between themselves.
The symbolism of Castor and Pollux
In Greek mythology Leda has two sons, Castor, son of Tyndare, and Pollux, son of Zeus and therefore immortal. Castor is killed in the course of a voyage in search of the Golden Fleece. Pollux is distraught and asks of Zeus that he be allowed to share his immortality with his brother. Zeus grants Pollux’s wish and the brothers must take it in turns to pass six months of the year in the company of the Gods on Mount Olympus and six months in Hades, the kingdom of the dead.
The choice of this legend echoes the values extolled by the Church at this time: sacrifice, sharing, brotherly love and the desire to save souls in distress. It also invites us to meditate on the themes of life and death.
The eastern facing sundial (Pollux) has a footed cross, symbol of the resurrected Christ and of eternal life. Traces of its painted decoration, a representation of an angel in euphoric song, are still visible. This sundial indicates the morning hours.
The western sundial (Castor) is partially obliterated but it is still possible to discern the figure of an amphibian, symbol of the world of the dead. Crowning this sundial was the image of an angel stretching out a hand, offering final redemption. This sundial indicates the hours of the afternoon.
Reading a sundial
Each angel holds a scroll indicating Albi’s latitude and the orientation of the sundial. Dates and times are given by the shadow cast by the stylus, a thin metallic rod mounted by an ornamental star. The shadow of the star falls on numbered lines which indicate the time.
The circle of light formed by the sunlight passing through the hole in the stylus falls upon curved lines which indicate the season, month and sign of the zodiac. The upper curve represents the winter solstice and the lower the summer solstice.
An example: if we look at the eastern sundial, Pollux, on the morning of the 21st December, the shadow of the star on the stylus will move across the face of the sundial indicating the time as the day progresses, but throughout the morning the light passing through the hole in the star will follow the curve of the arc of the winter solstice.
Restoration of the sundials
The sundials were restored in 2008 thanks to the combined efforts of Patrice Calvel, France’s Architect in Chief of Historic Monuments; the Midi-Pyrenees’ Regional Committee on Cultural Affairs; the Association for the Safeguard of Old Albi, Denis Savoie; President of the French Astronomical Society; and Didier Benoit, sundial specialist and member of the French Astronomical Society as well as the financial contributions of local sponsors.