John Burnett, MA

Overview of the Origin and History of Russian Bell-Founding

tsar bell

Fr. Roman's excellent summary of the history of Russian bells does not discuss in any detail the actual origins of the Russian bell-founding tradition. We refer mainly to E.V. Williams, The Bells of Russia: History and Technology (Princeton U. Press, 1985; unfortunately o.p.), pp. 21-24, 31ff, but also to certain other sources as well, for the following:

Among the earliest handbells extant (from c. 655 BC) are 80 of cast bronze from Nineveh (in modern Iraq). About 40 old Irish bells, made of iron plates, hammered square and riveted, are preserved, the most famous being the Clog-an-Eadhacta Phatraic (Bell of St. Patrick's Will) of about AD 552. It is of interest to note that a bishop consecrated by St. Patrick in 448 AD, named Assicus, is described in the Annals of Ulster as a "priest and bell-founder". He was Bishop of Elphin in Connacht. We do not know where he learned his trade but it could very well have been in a monastery, for until about the 14th Century almost all the bell casting was done in the abbeys and monasteries. It is known that Irish monasticism has connections with that of Egypt and Palestine.

At any rate, bells had become established in North Africa (Carthage and its vicinity) by about the time of St. Patrick-- the early 6th century; by 551, when Apollinaris arrived in Alexandria, bells were rung to summon the people to his cathedral when he read the imperial letter which appointed him as patriarch. However, bells were only beginning to come into use in Italy at this point. Notices of the ringing of church bells there proliferate rapidly from the beginning of the 7th c., perhaps due in part to official sanction for their liturgical use, which is alleged to have been given by Pope Sabinianus (604-606).

Pope Stephen II (752-757) erected a tower at Old St. Peter's for three bells. Only in the 9th c., however, did bells come into general use even for small village churches. "Thus," Williams writes, "almost 450 years after the first Western record of the ringing of a church bell... bell ringing was finally established in the services of the Western church."

Monks at Mount Sinai announcing the services by striking a hand-held (left), or a stationary (right) semantron. A metal semantron (not hand held) is called a talanton in Greek, or bilo in Russian.

Less clear is the appearance and role of bells in Byzantium. Three sources suggest that the first bells were introduced to Constantinople at the emperor's request by a shipment from the Doge of Venice around 865; however, there are problems with all three sources, and Williams suspects that either the bells were never actually shipped, or at least never reached the imperial city. The Latin churches of Constantinople did have bells in the 10th and 11th centuries, but the Greeks preferred to employ the traditional semantron, a wooden or iron plank suspended from above and struck with a mallet at least until the 13th century-- indeed, semantra are still in plentiful use today on the Holy Mountain and elsewhere. In fact, "the strong preference for the bell in the Roman Catholic West and the semantron in the Orthodox East [at the time of the Schism and the Crusades] became, in fact, one of the most symbolic manifestations of the separation between the two halves of the Christian world. Both Archbishop Antonij of Novgorod (ca. 1200) and Theodore Balsamon (ca. 1140-ca. 1195) make pointed references to this divergence."

Despite this, the Greek use of bells probably developed as a result of the Crusader occupation of Constantinople, for it is immediately after this time that Greek use begins to increase rapidly. Bell towers appear at Greek churches and monasteries from the start of the 13th century on, and a Latin bell tower was even built at Hagia Sophia Cathedral. Still, at the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the city contained 300 semantra and only 62 bells-- a ratio of 5 to 1. Nevertheless, bells sounded the alarm as the Turks mounted their final attack, "but their wild pleas were drowned by the trumpets, fifes, and cymbals of the Turks" and, from the moment that the Turks gained possession of the city, its bells were silenced for 400 years; many, to provide gun metal for Turkish artillery.

Great Prince Vladimir constructed the first masonry church in Kiev around 990 (Dormition Church), and this was followed a short time later by Yaroslav's splendid St. Sophia (i.e., a new 'Hagia Sophia'). However, the presence of bells in Russia is not confirmed until 1066, some 70 years after the "official" conversion of Kievan Rus' (998), when the First Novgorod Chronicle records the seizure of Novgorod by Prince Vseslav Briachislavich of Polotosk and his removal of bells and chandeliers from St. Sophia-- this is the first unequivocal confirmation of bells on Russian soil. Apparently by 1100, however, many Novgorod churches were ringing bells.

There are similar references in other Russian chronicles to bells in other cities, but in general, "information on bells in Russia before the Mongol invasion is meager and provides no unequivocal answer to the question of the source or sources of bells in Kievan Russia-- did they come from Byzantium, whose faith the Russian princes had embraced, or from cities in Western Europe, with which the Russian carried on extensive trade? [Indeed,] ...bells may have reached Russia from both the Byzantine East and the Latin West...."

Clearly, the semantron was brought to Russia from Byzantium, and the bilo, a horseshoe-shaped semantron of iron, is cited in sources contemporaneous with the chronicles mentioned above. Yet this does not make Constantinople the origin of Russia's bell traditions. The argument for Constantinople as the source of Russia's first bells seems to be based on the problematic reports of bells from Venice mentioned above, and there is no evidence of bell founding in Constantinople which predates the bells reported as already present in Slavic territories in the mid-10th century. In other words, Constantinople itself had to import them. So it is more likely that Russia's first bells were brought from the West. Kiev was served by a bishop from Trier in 860-861, and this lends further credence to arguments favoring a Western source. Dynastic ties were formed between Kiev and numerous kingdoms of the West even after the Schism, and Latin churches in Russian territory at the time had bells, particularly in the important and prosperous trade cities. All these factors increase the probability that bells came to Russia from the West. We even have examples of bronze bells with Latin inscriptions which are very similar to those cast in Germany and Sweden in the 1000's, although we do not know whether they were imported or cast locally. Nonetheless, the German-Latin profile and inscription are telling.

Skilled metal workers were active in Kievan Russia by 1194, and it is plausible that Russian founders may have cast bells without foreign assistance by at least that time. A bell of considerable size, destroyed sometime before 1183 and unearthed around 1940 is among the earliest examples of an Occidental (as opposed to Chinese or Japanese) bell with a relief (rather than incised) inscription.

During the Mongol Period (roughly 1250-1350), all heavy industry in the Kievan state was in chaos, and bell-founding was no exception. The conquerors had not only destroyed the important towns and foundries, but had taken most of the artisans and metalworkers into slavery. During this period, the more northerly towns such as Novgorod, Pskov, and especially Moscow, which had escaped Mongol domination, emerged as the new leaders of Russia's military, political, and ecclesiastical polity. Just before 1300 we have references to a number of bells in these cities, the size and sound of which was beginning to reach significant levels; the first chronicle notice of large bells dates from 1305, when two large bells were reported damaged in Rostov-- probably weighing about 3600 lbs, equivalent to the no. 10 bell sold by Pyatkov & Co. (about four feet in diameter).

Of particular importance for the political future of Russia, as well as for the development of Russian bell founding, was the transfer in 1326 of the see of the Russian metropolitan from Vladimir to Moscow, a move which eventually made Moscow the center of Russian Orthodoxy and of Russian political power. Favored with an advantageous location, the support of the Church, and shrewd princes, Moscow emerged after Russia's victory over the Mongols as one of the leading centers of bell and artillery founding in Russia by the late 14th century. Yet "with the first recorded use of artillery in Russia in 1382 and the earliest dated founding of Russian cannon a little more than a decade later began that precarious relationship between the instrument of the church and the instrument of battle that has posed a threat to bells in virtually every region of Europe." It would is interesting to reflect on this relationship; one could see the roar of heavy weaponry as the perversion of the 'earthly angelic' voice of the liturgy.

Moscow's principal rival in bell founding by the early 15th century was Tver, an important city northwest of Moscow with political aspirations of its own. Tver maintained close ties with the Western industrial developments, and it was probably here that Western innovations in founding were first received. Tver, however, was annexed by Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow, in 1485. The bell that had rung to summon Novgorod's town assembly (veche) and to proclaim the town's independence was seized and taken to Moscow; in taking the veche bell prisoner Ivan extinguished one of the few manifestations of oligarchical rule in Russia.

After his marriage in 1472 to Sophia (Zoe) Palaeologus, niece of Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor, Ivan III took a strong personal interest both in the development of founding and in the raising of a splendid new architecture in the Kremlin. In 1474, he sent his ambassador, Semen Tolbuzin, to Italy to recruit skilled architects, engineers, and technicians for this work. Most illustrious of the numerous Italians who accepted Tolbuzin's invitation was the Bolognese architect, engineer, and founder, Ridolfo Fioravanti (415/20-ca.1486); he invited other skilled workers from Italy who introduced the Russians to Western techniques of casting, in which they quickly became proficient. Ivan III also sought to reduce Moscow's dependence on the West by recruiting foreign metallurgists, prospectors, and mining engineers to help Russians locate and exploit native metal resources. Thus in the last quarter of the 15th c., Moscow saw an unprecedented burst of founding, and in the years to follow Russian bell casting entered a new era of expansion and technological development.

Bells in Muscovite Russia grew steadily larger and more impressive. In 1554, Novgorod produced a bell weighing 9 tons for St. Sophia Cathedral. Bell production at the Moscow Canon Yard surpassed both Pskov and Novgorod by the end of the same century, and even began to rival such great Western founding centers as Paris and London. By 1533 we have report of an 18-ton bell in the Kremlin. In 1599 the Andrej Chokhov, generally considered the father of the Moscow school of founding, cast the Kremlin Godunov Bell, estimated at some 38 tons. This bell has since been twice recast, the first time in 1654 by Emelian Danilov, who increased its weight to 144.5 tons; Danilov cast another bell in 1655 weighing an estimated 155 tons (i.e., 0.36 million pounds of bronze!). The second recasting took place in 1735 under Mikhail Motorin, and brought the weight of this bell to 218 tons, that is, almost half a million pounds of bronze-- this is the famous "Tsar-Kolokol" which stands in the Kremlin, the high-water mark of Russian founding.

Estimates number the bells rung in Moscow's churches and monasteries at the middle of the 1800's at around 2,300, the total combined weight of which was probably around 3.6 million pounds. "This great mass of metal, suspended in towers throughout the city, was sufficient... to have exhausted an entire mine."

The year 1913, the last full year of peace and the tricentennial of the Romanov dynasty, was one of the last years of bell production in Russia. In that year at least nineteen foundries were still casting bells, but afterwards, bell-founding bowed to the more pressing demand for weaponry. Over a hundred "Latin" bells, estimated to be worth half a million dollars, were sent from churches in the Baltic provinces and Poland to save them from the advancing Germans, some dating from the mid-1600's. In the summer of 1922 they were still to be seen at Nizhnij-Novgorod where church bells had formerly been sold at the great summer fair.

Russian bell founding ended after the October Revolution in 1917. At first the state attempted to confiscate church bells, but the church sharply protested and the Bolsheviks backed off. However, in subsequent years, many were sold to countries whose supplies of copper and tin had been depleted during World War I, or converted into farm and industrial equipment. Many villages sold their own bells; Stalin ordered them removed from their towers, to be recast as tractors. By the early 1930's bell tiers in hundreds of Russian towers were vacant. Writer Boris Pilnyak describes how the bells of Uglich "fell with a roar and a thud, digging holes some five feet into the ground.... The whole town was full of the moaning of these ancient bells." Thus the rhythmic pulse of zvon ringing metamorphosed into the "monotonous, measured throbbing of motors, of machines, a new idol, a new Moloch of the land." Only a few zvonitsi, such as that of Rostov the Great escaped and were preserved-- but rarely rung-- as national treasures.

In a culture dominated by visual and aural images, "the great zvon that resonated above the city like an enormous, invisible dome of booming bronze... assumed cultic significance as a transcendental expression of 'metallic might in a wooden world'. For almost four centuries, in wave upon wave of incessant alleluias, 'the bronze voice of orthodoxy' declared the presence of the Third Rome and the piety of its sovereigns." Williams concludes, however, "With the secularization, closing, and even razing of many churches following the October Revolution of 1917, this sound, which in palmier days had made the city tremble, rapidly diminished and will soon fade from living memory."

Not so fast, though- Bells have become an essential part of the prayer and proclamation of the Orthodox Church, and Russians feel that they need this voice of pure earth for the fullness of their worship of the God who became man and took to this earth to himself. Almost immediately upon the proclamation of Perestroika by Gorbachov came the first attempts at a resurrection of the Russian bell tradition. Thus as Nikolai Pyatkov, Director of the Pyatkov & Co. collective writes, "We had to begin not exactly from scratch, but yet without the guidance that would have been available, had the darkness this century not interposed. This is a problem faced by any bell foundry in post-Communist Russia. Our first experience with bells was in 1990, when we started making them on the side, moonlighting while we kept our day jobs. It didn't turn out too well. Nevertheless, we sold the first set we made. A year and a half of hard-won insight and experience later, we took them back and re-cast them out of principle. We also re-cast some bells that had cracked in 1991-1992. There had been no one to learn from! But hard work and careful study of our historic bells and long practice paid off, and we can truthfully say that we are now casting bells that genuinely match our great historic bells, in quality if not yet in size. Other Russian bell companies even send their bells to us now, to be melted down and recast! We meet with European bell making firms annually to exchange information and expertise- but the wisdom of our own holy Tradition is our most important guide."

(Click here for Fr. Roman Lukianov's article about the History of Russian Bells.)

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