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In Moscow, nearby the Church of St. Louis of the French, a parish church of the French Catholic community in Moscow, embedded into the wall of the building that back in the day was the church’s orphanage home, there is a sundial entitled with a quote from psalm 101 (in Vulgate numbering):

Catholic church sundial in Moscow

(Click on the image above to see a higher resolution photo.)

The inscribed statement reads:

SICUT UMBR I DECLINAVERUNT

However, according to Vulgate, 101:12 reads:

Dies mei sicut umbra declinaverunt et ego sicut foenum arui.

My knowledge of Latin is limited, and I cannot help but wonder:

What might explain this deviation from the scripture?

Specifically:

  1. Is there a context in which the form umbri can be correct? Or is it a mistake no matter what?

  2. If it is indeed an error, what might explain it? (It does not seem easy to make a typo in a medium like that; the clock is handmade and was done before automated tools for inscribing text existed.)

  3. Could that stroke after “UMBR” be meaningfully interpreted as something other than the letter “I” (that is also kerned so badly relative to the preceding “R” for some reason)?

Any guesses that might shed some light on this mistery are welcome!

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  • 1
    I know nothing of sundials so I don't want to post this as an answer, but is the I related to the display of time somehow? It doesn't quite seem to match the "1" marker on the lower half from this angle, but if it was added first, then maybe they didn't have room for the "A" in "UMBRA" because the I was already there.
    – Agnes
    Sep 9 at 15:46
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    What a creative hypothesis, @Agnes! I haven’t thought about that. Could be. Although the angle of the stroke indeed does not quite match the one of the line marking the hour 1 on the clock (both on the photo and from what I remember looking at it with my own eyes); if it is aligned with any of those, it’s more the line marking the hour 2 than anything else (and that isn’t perfect either).
    – ib.
    Sep 9 at 15:53
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    I don't know anything about this, but regarding you comment that no-one would misspell something like this: bbc.com/news/world-europe-24489512
    – Carsten S
    Sep 10 at 15:55
  • @CarstenS: Gosh! I guess I’m very wrong, then. Thank you for such a glaring case in point. I’ll save it for the next time I’ll need to vindicate myself for a blatant mistake. :‍–‍)
    – ib.
    Sep 10 at 16:09
  • It clearly looks like UMBRA to me (I upvoted cmw's answer). If there's a mystery here, it's what the second letter of D?CLINAVERUNT is supposed to be... Sep 10 at 16:11
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The only explanation that makes any sense at all is that “umbr” is an abbreviation of “umbra” and that the free-standing vertical stroke is not a letter, but a punctuation mark. Thus, the inscription reads “sicut umbr(a), declinaverunt”, “like unto a shadow, they have declined”, scil. “my days”.

It is actually quite common to adorn sundials (free-standing or architectural) with a statement comparing human life to a shadow, like the shadows on a sundial. I think of what is now Brick Lane Mosque in London (first built as a Huguenot chapel, then a synagogue, and now a mosque, in keeping with the changing demography of the neighbourhood), which reminds us that “we are but a shadow” (umbra sumus), paraphrasing Horace.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brick_Lane_Mosque#/media/File:%22Umbra_Sumus%22_sundial_-_geograph.org.uk_-_321257.jpg

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    Brilliant explanation! I find it rather plausible that the vertical stroke is a comma of sorts; at least, there is some semantic value in it, then. It still feels a bit weird that they had chosen to abbreviate the word umbra like that, but I can imagine how it could have happened, given the limited space for the quote selected.
    – ib.
    Sep 10 at 11:59
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It's hard to tell for sure from the image, but couldn't that just be the stroke of an A, with the rest faded or somehow gone missing?

There is a word Umbri, but it has to do with the ancient people by that name. Moreover, the distance between the R and the I is too great for it to be one word, yet just room enough for the rest of the letter.

Agnes' suggestion, that it's just a vertical stroke and umbra is abbreviated, is also possible; abbreviations on inscriptions in general are very common.

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  • Could be. This was one of the first things I’d thought about. That “I” stroke is too vertical, though, to be a part of a letter “A”—at least, it looks that way if we compare it to the strokes comprising “A” in “DECLINAVERUNT” there.
    – ib.
    Sep 9 at 17:08
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    @ib. At that point, I might just chalk it up to some kind of mistake.
    – cmw
    Sep 9 at 17:13
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    My only guess is that it’s a mistake that had been made during a major restoration of the thing, if there ever was one. But I also find it hard to believe, as they would be tracing over existing inscribed letters.
    – ib.
    Sep 9 at 20:22
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    @ib. It's a puzzle, for sure, but as far as I can tell, it's not due to Latin grammar.
    – cmw
    Sep 9 at 20:38
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    @ib.: I would say a hasty restoration seems most likely. The stroke is, to me, clearly that of an A, both qua position and qua angle and size. I think this is supported by the fact that the first E in declinaverunt is also botched up. Perhaps the colour had been washed again, and the grooves had eroded in places, such that the original strokes were no longer all clearly visible; if it was cheaply repainted by someone who was tired and only knew Cyrillic letters, perhaps this was the result.
    – Cerberus
    Sep 12 at 15:11
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Vertical strokes are not necessarily letters; they can also be visual elements and punctuation. The three symbols at the top of the motif are "I DE" which, rearranged, spell "DEI"; consequently the radiating lines below indicate that the light measuring human days is "of God".

I suggest that the visual pun justifies the presence of the vertical stroke as well as the omission of the last letter of "UMBRA", which allows the spacing to be even.

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    Not sure how it works as a pun if you have to rearrange the letters for it to work.
    – Cairnarvon
    Sep 10 at 1:29

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