One of Prague’s most famous landmarks, a 15th-century astronomical clock, is at the center of an embarrassing row amid claims that an artist endowed it with likenesses of his friends and acquaintances in an expensive restoration project, possibly as a joke.
The 600-year-old Orloj – long a magnet for tourists who gaze up in wonder as the 12 apostles are set in motion by the clock striking the hour – reopened in a blaze of fanfare in 2018 after a £2.1m refurbishment to the city’s medieval old town hall that included an upgrade to the clock’s intricate machinery.
Among the work’s showpieces was a supposed reproduction of a 19th-century calendar painting by Josef Mánes adorning the clock’s astrolabe and depicting the months of the year in the form of the zodiac signs.
Now the artwork has been engulfed in controversy after a local heritage preservation group alleged that its painter, Stanislav Jirčík, had deviated from the spirit and detail of Mánes’ painting, which dates from 1866 and is now stored in Prague’s city museum.
Discrepancies that initially passed unnoticed were belatedly brought to light after a member of the Club for Old Prague lodged a complaint with the Czech culture ministry, which has now launched an investigation.
The complainant, Milan Patka, said the reproduction radically changed the appearance, ages, skin tone, dress and even genders of the figures portrayed by Mánes.
In one depiction, intended to represent Virgo, the original of a girl with red hair and a distinctive ribbon is replaced with a middle-aged, modern-looking woman with gray or highlighted hair and an earring. In another instance, a smiling female Aquarius has been transformed into a man with short hair.
Jiřčík also changes Mánes’ original painting of a predominantly black dog to one with a brown and white coat and raised tail.
Jirčík, an academic painter and restorer, was even said to have presented some figures with likenesses of his friends, including Kateřina Tučková, an award-winning Czech novelist.
Tučková appeared to acknowledge the resemblance in a Facebook post, writing: “As an art historian, I would first of all like to point out that Mr Stanislav Jirčík clearly did not have the task of restoring Mánes’ original, but to create a copy, or in fact a completely new artefact.”
Deník N, a Czech news website that broke the story, quoted experts as saying the changes were so radical that they must have been intentional, perhaps done as a joke.
The artist has not commented and has not responded to journalists’ phone calls.
Patka said the effort was poorer than those of amateur artists on Prague’s Charles Bridge, who produce on-the-spot portraits of passing tourists. “I expected an honest approach from copying the calendar – even the fast painters on Charles Bridge [make] an effort to capture the appearance of the characters and hairstyles,” he wrote.
Adam Scheinherr, the deputy mayor for transport and heritage for Prague city council, which owns the clock, said preliminary investigations showed the painting to be “banal and done by an amateur”.
He said a replacement would probably be commissioned but he would first speak to the artist. “I want to have a serious discussion with him and ask him about the quality of the painting, what was his inspiration from him, did he study Josef Manes,” said Scheinherr. “We have many sketches of the original work, so it’s certainly possible to do a copy. I want to know if he was trying. The value of the astronomical clock is incalculable to us, so it is not about cost.”
Two earlier copies of Manes’ original painting by other artists who adorned the clock were faithful to his design to avoid generating controversy.