Few things have inspired more poetry and flowery philosophizing than the passage of time. It’s no wonder that the sundial, one of our most ancient and widely used timekeepers, would be the perfect place to inscribe maxims about the transience of life.
Sundials have been around since at least 1500 BCE, but it wasn’t until around the 16th century that it became customary in Europe to inscribe them with poems and codas to life, death, and the lessons of time. This helped the sundial evolve from functional timepiece into symbols of our fleeting mortality.
While not the only collection of sundial quotes, one which exemplifies the meaning and importance of sundial codas is a guide called, fittingly, The Book of Sun-Dials. The book was written and compiled by Margaret Gatty, a Victorian children’s book author who also had a passion for collecting seaweed. Gatty was afflicted with illnesses all of her life, likely related to an unidentified case of Multiple Sclerosis, and so during her many instances of convalescence, Gatty was able to indulge in a handful of interesting hobbies, some of which led to published works. The Book of Sun-Dials, originally published in 1872, was her final book, released less than a year before her death.
According to the preface in a later edition of the book, Gatty was inspired to begin cataloguing sundials around 1835 when she began to notice them scattered around the villages of Yorkshire. One 18th-century dial in a local church bore the motto Fugit hora, ora—Latin for “Time flies, pray.” Another church a few miles away held a dial with the inscription “Man fleeth as a shadow.”
As Gatty’s health declined, her collection of mottoes grew. It began to incorporate sundials from all over Europe, thanks to her daughter and a friend who continued to collect sundials they would find in their travels. Even after Gatty passed away in 1873, expanded editions of the book continued to be released as there didn’t seem to be an end to the sundials and mottoes to be found. The fourth edition of the book, released in 1900, featured the locations of over 1,600 sundials and their mottoes.
Many sundial mottoes found in the guide fall into similar themes, with references to time, the sun, shade, death, and light being extremely common. Sometimes the mottoes feature a well-worn saying like “A stitch in time saves nine” or “Sic vita transit,” Latin for “So passes life.” Since many sundials can be found as decorative elements in churches, a great deal of them are written in poetic Latin, giving them an air of august antiquity.
Humorous ruminations on mortality are also popular inscriptions. A dial from 1851 found in France’s Abriès commune features the simple line, “Il est plus tard que vous ne croyez”—“It is later than you think.” A dial found in Surrey reads ”Tenere non potes, potes non perdere diem” (“You can avoid wasting a day, although you cannot hold it.”) At a church in the city of Durham is a dial that states,“The last hour to many, possibly to you.” Another oft-used double entendre is some variation of “Only mark the bright hours,” referring both to an outlook on life, and how a sundial works. Clever.
Some mottoes focus on rhyme, like a dial that was found in Leicestershire that reads, “How we go, shadow show.” Some lean into their poetic inspirations, such as a dial found near Florence that reads, “Della vita il cammin l’astro maggiore, Segna veloce al giusto e al peccatore,” (“The glorious orb of day with breathless speed, To good and bad alike the way of life doth read”). Still others are just depressing, like a Yorkshire dial that reads Disce mori mundo—“Learn to die to the world.”
But to truly understand the art of the sundial inscription one need look no further than the words found on a sundial in Courmayeur, Italy, which reads, “Cette ombre solaire est a la fois, La mesure du temps, et l’image de la vie,” translated from the French, “This solar shadow is at once the measure of time and the symbol of life.”
This poetic tradition of sundial mottoes has fallen a bit out of use as modern dials become both more detailed and more abstract since they are little more than decorative flourishes in the modern age. That said, some people are still cataloguing their locations in places like the British Sundial Society’s fixed dial list, which has brought the spirit of Gatty’s project into the age of crowdsourcing.