Friday, October 5, 2012

Orthodox bells as "aural icons"

( - You’re running late. You are nearing the church or you’re downstairs setting up for the coffee hour. You hear something. It’s the church bell calling you and all the world to worship. The Divine Liturgy is about to begin and if you don’t get a move on – you’re going to be late.

Planned belfry of All Saints Church in Pattaya
At some other time you hear the bells’ mournful toll and you know someone has gone to God. You cross yourself and pray, Eternal Memory. You hear jubilant bells and you know a marriage has been celebrated and you pray, “O Lord our God crown them with glory and honor”… And when you hear the most joyful and glorious peal of bells you know: Christ is Risen!

Traditional Orthodox church bells, unlike Protestant and Roman Catholic bells, are not tuned on a lathe to produce familiar major and minor chords. The voice of the Orthodox bell is just that – a voice. In the Russian tradition, a church bell, “…must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the Voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent…” ( “The Bells” by Elif Batuman. The New Yorker, Apr. 27, 2009)

In a sense, Orthodox church bells might be considered aural icons. What the icon is to our sight, the bell is to our hearing. It’s almost as if Orthodox church bells become singing icons. A set of proper Orthodox church bells establishes the acoustic space of an Orthodox church just as icons and hymnography define its visual and spiritual space.

Russian church bells are legendary. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it’s the church bells of Moscow’s Kremlin that announced Napoleon’s advance. No wonder that in Tchaikovsky’s, 1812 Overture, the triumphant dramatic conclusion is brought to a fever pitch with the ringing of church bells, superimposed over the music of the troparion, “Spasi Hospodi…O Lord save Thy people…” and the pounding blast of canons. Wow!

Concerning the ringing of church bells, the article in The New Yorker states: “…Their tolling… has been known to bring miserly or hard-hearted people to repentance, and to dissuade would-be murderers and suicides. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov falls into a guilt-induced fever, hearing the ringing of the Sunday church bells; he gives himself away by returning to the scene of the crime…”

The blessing of Orthodox church bells is defined in The Book of Needs as, “The Blessing, Naming and Chrismation of a Bell…” The Blessing of Bells includes some elements of the rite of Baptism including the anointment with holy chrism. The bell is named and consecrated to the memory of a saint whose icon is often molded into its side when the bell is cast. Today not only monastic communities but parish churches as well have seen the addition of traditional Orthodox bells as prescribed in The Book of Needs...
Complete article here.


  1. So absolutely correct!I find it interesting how often... it's when people aren't allowed to ring their church bells that they sound the loudest... They are one of God's greatest blessings to us.
    Thanks for this lovely post.

  2. I love the bells. How does a parish acquire a quality set?

  3. Delightful! Your site is always a joy.

    Sorry to hear about those canons being blasted, though; I hope their end was quick and merciful. :)