Sundials in Malta

Sundials in Malta

Throughout the centuries communities at large were to mark their time of day by simply following the tolling of church bells. The matutina, the angelusand the għasar were moments when the church bells rang so that the community would be reminded of the obligation to pray at sunrise, midday and sunset respectively or else to attend mass. These bells would be struck by persons guided by simple instruments such as the sundials that were invented more than 800 years ago.

Sundials are the cheapest and most effective way to tell the time, of course, so long as the sun is shining.

In Malta and Gozo, one may count up to 50 sundials that are spread in numerous towns and villages. Most of these are vertical sundials, that is, they are designed on a wall, with an iron rod (called a gnomon) protruding outwards from the surface to cast its shadow over the segmental lines denoting the hours of the day. There are also horizontal sundials where the face of the clock is set on a horizontal slab and the gnomon is set as a free standing triangular shaped metal piece.

In Rabat alone there are 10 sundials, 5 of which are to be found in the Dominican Friary which is situated in the area not far away from Tal-Virtù. In Qormi each of the two parish churches has its own sundial. The sundial on the side wall of St Sebastian parish church is modern and elaborate in its design. So is the one painted onto the façade of the Casino Maltese in Republic Square (former Piazza Regina) in Valletta. The gnomon casts its shadow to tell the time at noon only. However this rod has an eyelet (called alidade) at its tip which allows the sun to penetrate through it to mark the lunar months and thus create a calendar based on the zodiac signs.

The oldest sundial in the Maltese islands is probably the one found in an old building in Xewkija, Gozo. This is a vertical sundial and it bears the date 10 April 1546.

Many of these sundials are located on the facades or side walls of private residences, convents or churches. Others are found indoors especially in courtyards. Some may have a motto written in Latin, Italian or Maltese. Others would have a decorative design added to them. Most however are simply made up of a series of lines and numbers scratched onto the surface of the limestone.

Dials of an elaborate and more technical nature were produced during the Renaissance in Europe. Following this there was the invention of clocks. From then on sun dials were used when setting a clock to ensure that the time was properly set.

Eventually, more precise and elaborate tools were devised to ensure that the hours of the day would be better observed to provide a more accurate time of day.