Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

Joy of all the Sorrowful - Mays Landing, NJ (f. 1966)

Bells and Russian Orthodox Peals - History

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Bells did not come into use immediately after the appearance of Christianity. In the Old Testament Church, in the Temple in Jerusalem, the faithful were summoned to services not with bells, but with trumpets. In the first centuries of Christianity, when the Church was persecuted by the pagans, Christians had no opportunity to openly call the faithful to services. At that time, they were secretly summoned either by one of the deacons or special messengers, or sometimes the bishop himself at the end of a service would reveal the time and place of the next one.

Following the cessation of persecutions in the fourth century, various means came into use to summon the faithful. More specific means were found in the sixth century when the sound of boards or iron hoops, beaten with hammers, summoned the faithful. Eventually the most perfect means of calling the faithful to the services was devised, pealing bells.

The first bells, as is well known, appeared in Western Europe. There is a tradition by which the invention of bells is ascribed to St. Paulinus the Bishop of Nola (411) at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century. Several versions of this tradition exist. In one, St. Paulinus saw some field flowers in a dream, daffodils, which gave forth a pleasant sound. When he awoke the bishop ordered bells cast, which had the form of these flowers. But, evidently, St. Paulinus did not introduce bells into the practice of the Church, since neither in his works nor in the works of his contemporaries are bells mentioned. Only in the beginning of the seventh century did the Pope of Rome, Sabinian, successor to St. Gregory the Dialogist, succeed in giving bells a Christian significance. From this period, bells began gradually to be used by Christians, and in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries in Western Europe, bells properly became part of Christian liturgical practice.

In the East, in the Greek Church, bells came into use in the second half of the ninth century, when in 865, the Doge of Venice, Ursus, gave the Emperor Michael a gift of twelve large bells. These bells were hung in a tower near Hagia Sophia Cathedral. But bells did not come into general use among the Byzantines.

In Russia, bells appeared almost simultaneously with the reception of Christianity by St. Vladimir (988 A.D.). Wooden boards and metal hoops beaten with hammers were also used and still are in some monasteries. But strangely enough, Russia took bells not from Greece from whence she received Orthodoxy, but from Western Europe. The very word kolokol comes from the German word "glocke." The Slavonic word is kampan which comes from the Roman province of Campania where the first bells, made of bronze, were cast. Initially the bells were small, and each church had only two or three.

In the fifteenth century special factories for bell casting appeared, where bells of huge proportions were made. In the bell tower of Ivan the Great in Moscow, for example, are the "Everyday" bell weighing 36,626 pounds; the bell "reyute" weighing 72,000 pounds; and the largest bell, called "Dormition," which weighs around 144,000 pounds.

The largest bell in the world at present is the "Tsar Bell." It stands on a stone pedestal at the base of the bell tower of Ivan the Great. There is no equal to it in the world, not only in dimension and weight, but in the fine art of casting. The "Tsar Bell" was poured by Russian masters Ivan and Mikail Matorin, father and son, in 1733-1735. Material for the "Tsar Bell" was taken from its predecessor, a gigantic bell which had been damaged in a fire. This bell weighed 288,000 pounds and was cast by the master craftsman, Alexander Grigoriev, in 1654. To the 288,000 pounds of base metal was added more than 80,000 pounds of alloy. In all, the total weight of the Tsar Bell is 218 American tons. The diameter of the bell is 6 meters, 60 centimeters, or 21 feet, 8 inches.

This amazing product of casting was never successfully hung for it was severely damaged in a terrible and devastating fire in 1737. Still in its casting form on a wooden scaffolding, it is not known whether or not it was ever hung from this scaffolding. When the wooden scaffolding caught fire, they started to throw water on it. The red hot bell developed many large and small cracks due to the extreme change in temperature, and a large piece, weighing 11,000 kilograms (11.5 tons), fell from the bell.

After the fire, the "Tsar Bell" lay in its casting form for a whole century. In 1836, the bell was lifted out and placed on a stone pedestal, the project of the architect A. Montferrand, the builder of St. Isaac's Cathedral and the Alexander Column in Petersburg. It stands on this pedestal now with the fallen piece of the bell leaning at the foot of the pedestal. Such is the fate of the largest bell in the world, the "Tsar Bell," which was never rung.

The largest working bell is the "Dormition" bell, located in Moscow, at the bell tower of Ivan the Great. Its pealing gave the signal to begin the festive ringing of the bells of all the Moscow churches on Pascha night. Thus, the Russian Orthodox people loved the ringing of the church bells and enriched the craft with their innovation and art.

The distinguishing quality of Russian bells is their sonority and melodiousness. This is attained by various techniques:

  • An exact proportion of bronze and tin, often with silver added, the proper alloy.
  • The height of the bell and its width, the right proportions.
  • The thickness of the walls of the bell.
  • The correct hanging of the bell.
  • The correct composition of the tongue and its manner of being hung in the bell.

Russians call the clapper, the tongue. The Russian bell is distinguished from the Western European bell in that it is fixed in position, and the clapper moves and strikes the sides of the bell, which produces the sound. It is characteristic that the Russian people call the movable part of the bell the "tongue," enabling the bell to have a living voice and trumpet. Truly, with what other name, if not a talking one, can one call the bell?

On the days of great feasts the sound of the bell reminds us of the blessedness of Heaven. On the days of great saints, it reminds us of the eternal repose of the dwellers of Heaven. During the days of Holy Week, it reminds us of our reconciliation with God through Christ the Saviour. On the days of Bright Week, it proclaims the victory of life over death and the eternal, endless joy of the future life in the Kingdom of Christ.

Is it not a mouth that speaks when the bell tells us of each passing hour, and reminds us of the passage of time and of eternity when there should be time no longer (Rev. 10:6).

Announcing the glory of the name of Christ, day and night, from the heights of a church of God, the sound of bells reminds us of the words of the Lord, the Pantocrator, spoken through the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah, / have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night (Is. 62:6). It is not by chance that pagans, when they heard the sound of bells, often said, "that is the voice of the Christian God."

The sound of one church bell is something exalted and solemn, and if there are several bells in harmony with each other, then a more magnificent sonority is sounded. A moving peal of bells acts upon our inner feelings and awakens our souls from spiritual slumber. What grieved, despondent, and often irritating tones are evoked by church bells in the soul of an evil and impious apostate. The feelings of discomfort and weariness of soul are evoked by the sound of the bell in the soul of a perpetual sinner. But in the soul of the faithful, who seek peace with God the Lord, the church bell awakens a bright, joyous, and serene disposition. Thus a person can define the state of his soul by means of the sound of bells.

One can bring forth examples from life, when a man, exhausted from fighting life's bitterness, and fallen into despair and despondency, decides to take his own life. Then he hears the church bell. Preparing to commit suicide, he trembles, becomes afraid, and involuntarily guards himself with the sign of the Cross. It recalls the Heavenly Father, and new, good feelings arise in his soul, and the one who was perishing forever returns to life. Thus, in the strokes of a church bell there is hidden a wonderful power, which penetrates deeply into the soul of mankind.

Having loved the sound of the church bell, Orthodox people associate it with all their festive and sorrowful events. Therefore, the sound of the Orthodox bell tower serves not only to indicate the time of divine services, but also to express joy, grief and festivity. Various forms of bell ringing, each with their own name and meaning, developed to express this range of feelings.


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