Oct 15, 2001

Bring Back the Bells – and the Bell Tower, too.

Online Edition

– Vol. VII, No. 7: October 2001


Bring Back the Bells – and the Bell Tower, too.

by Michael S. Rose

A church should not only be seen, but heard.

Designers of our late twentieth century churches have all but forgotten such simple wisdom. While they have often tried in many ways to conceal the church building visually (e.g., by making the church look like a library or giving it proportions dominated by the horizontal rather than the vertical), they have had an easier time silencing it. That is, designers and liturgists have effectively eliminated the use of bells both inside and outside the church. This is a fact that is not only lamentable, it is one that needs to be rectified in the churches of the twenty-first century. Bells are an important, if almost forgotten, aspect of both the church building and the liturgy.

A summons to prayer

Through the use of bells the faithful are reminded of Christ’s presence, His importance in our lives, and our need to honor Him in adoration and prayer. Walking through the streets of Rome, Barcelona, or Paris, it is difficulteven todaynot to hear the beautiful pealing of church bellsreal bells swinging in a bell towerthroughout the day.

The first use of church bells, as early as the eighth century, was to announce the time of church services, most notably the Mass on Sundays and Holy Days. Later they were used also during Mass, being rung at the elevation of the Host during Consecration so that those not in the church at the time could stop their work or play and briefly turn toward the church in adoration. (This custom was later replaced in most places by the use of hand bells in the liturgy.)

Beginning in the Middle Ages differences in the manner of ringing the bells or in how many bells were used indicated the type of liturgical service (Sunday Mass, Benediction, funeral, wedding, and so forth). The faithful could also tell if the service would be a sung High Mass with a sermon preached or a recited Low Mass. Even today the bells of our churches let out a recognizable peal for the Angelus (usually at 6:00 a.m., Noon, and 6:00 p.m.) that is distinct from wedding bells or the funeral knell before a Mass of Christian Burial. In fact, in many communities, especially in some European villages, a "passing bell" will be rung to signal the death of a parishioner, or in a monastery, the death of a brother monk.

All tolls and peals of the church bells, no matter what the occasion or time of day, are a summons to prayerwhether for the souls of the faithful departed, the pious recitation of the Angelus, or a call to worship through participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The importance of bells

François Rabelais’s Gargantua (1534), a satirical and sometimes potty-mouthed look at Renaissance Paris, gives an indication of the importance placed on church bells by the dawn of that age. The story’s title character, an amiable if irreverent giant, removes the huge church bells from Notre Dame, thinking they might "sound very sweet tinkling on his mare’s neck". When the whole of Paris gets into a violent uproar, Janotus, Doctor of Theology and eldest member of the University faculty, is empowered to "apprise Gargantua of the dreadful damage they have suffered through the loss of these bells". Armed with holy water, Janotus reluctantly pays a visit to the giant’s home. "It were but right that you should return our bells, for we are in sore need of them!" he begins. "Many a time we have heretofore refused good money for them from the citizens of London (near Cahors) and of Bordeaux (in the land of Brie) If you restore them to us at my request, I shall gain one and one-quarter yards of sausage by it. O Sir, Domine, restor bellsimus nobis, give us back our bells! Truly, est bonum urbis, it is for the good of the city".

The plight of Garguanta’s satirized Parisians reminds us that these church bells require a proper home. Their use at the church and their increasing importance to the neighborhood obviously necessitated a place to keep them for ringing. In order for these bells to resound through the city streets, town markets, and distant fields, the bells (ranging from those of modest size at public oratories to multiple-ton bells such as one finds at the great cathedrals of Christendom, such as Notre Dame) had to be situated as high up in the church as was reasonably possible.

A bell tower was the obvious solution. According to the eighth century Liber Pontificalis, Pope Stephen II (752-757) erected a belfry with three bells at Old St. Peter’s Basilica in the heart of Rome. A belfry is the upper part of a steeple or tower that supports the bells with its accompanying ropes and mechanisms. By the end of that century bells, and therefore belfries, were regarded as an essential part of every church. In fact, it was felt that no religious service could properly take place without the ringing of a bell. Medieval canon law, therefore, required that cathedrals have at least five bells, a parish church two or three, and chapels of the mendicant orders and public oratories were required to maintain one.

Although church towers (used as watchtowers by sentinels or as spiraling stairwells) preceded the use of bells, it is obvious that church towers built from the eighth century onward were for the express purpose of hanging bells. One reason for this was because of the increased size and number used. It has been recorded that Canterbury Cathedral in England, for instance, required twenty-four men to ring its largest bell, and all of sixty-three men for the full peal of its five bells. Its bell tower is correspondingly "gargantuan".

Most churches, although not using bells the size of Canterbury’s, require a strong and massive tower to accommodate the swinging peals. For acoustics and other practical reasons, the belfry openings (where the bells are actually hung) are placed well above the ridge of the church. Louvers, sometimes used in the uppermost part of the tower, are so constructed pointing upward so that they carry the sound of the bells as far as possible, while at the same time lessening the impact of the ringing in the immediate vicinity of the church.

The bellchambers of the tower were also once built to facilitate the hanging bell-ropes that were pulled manually from below. Although in most churches the bells are now controlled by an automatic mechanism and operated with just the flip of a switch, in previous centuries monks or laymen could make a vocation of ringing the bells at a cathedral, pilgrimage church, or basilica.

The delight of bells

Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame captures vividly the intense emotion and bravura in which Quasimodo, Paris’s most renowned bell-ringer carries out his task. "Sometimes an enormous head and a bundle of ill-adjusted limbs might be swaying frantically to and fro from a rope’s end under the belfry", wrote Hugo; "it was Quasimodo ringing the Vespers or the Angelus". The hunchback’s fondness for each of the cathedral’s bells, from the chime in the steeple over the transept to the big bell above the door, is worth noting. So too is the joy he took in putting them to use:

It is impossible to give any idea of his joy on those days when full peals were rung. he called to his assistants, stationed on a lower story of the tower, to begin. They then hung upon the ropes, the windlass creaked, and the enormous mass of metal moved slowly. Quasimodo, panting with excitement, followed it with his eye. The first stroke of the clapper upon its brazen wall made the beam on which he stood quiver. Quasimodo vibrated with the bell. "Here we go! There we go!" he shouted in a mad burst of laughter. But the motion of the great bell grew faster and faster, and as it traversed an ever-increasing space, his eye grew bigger and bigger, more and more glittering and phosphorescent. At last the full peal began; the whole tower shook: beams, leads, broad stones, all rumbled together, from the piles of the foundation to the trefoils at the top. Then Quasimodo’s rapture knew no bounds: he came and he went; he trembled and shook from head to foot with the tower.

Perhaps not as ecstatic as the hunchback, many people cannot help but be profoundly moved by the peal of cathedral bells, the ebullient ringing of wedding bells, or the mournful toll of a funeral bell. For the pilgrim in city or country that distant sound of ringing may well be the first indication that his destination is not far off. He then looks forward to catching his first glimpse of the church tower or spire rising above the urban fabric or seeing the silhouette of the church building atop a distant hill.

The home to bells

In fact, the bell tower is one of the primary vertical elements that draws the pilgrim to the church, not only by the sound of its bells but by its visual profile. Pointing upward to the heavens, it is a welcoming sign to pilgrims and tourists, parishioners and merchants alike.

The earliest towers, called campaniles, originated in Italy during the late sixth century. Typically built as detached towers, they were first plain and circular in shape, with a few round-arched openings at the top. But by the tenth century, a decorated square tower was more commonly used throughout Italy, and it is this form that has been handed down by church architects through the succeeding centuries.

Yet during the latter half of the twentieth century bell towers and then the bells themselves disappeared. Some argued that real bells were not affordable; others that they were inappropriatemerely a sign of prideful triumphalism. With hindsight, however, most Catholics can recognize instinctively that the peal of bells and the visual profile of a bell tower add to the unique appeal that Catholic churches have to announce the presence of Christ and His Church in this world.

Let us bring back the bells and their towers.


Michael S. Rose is author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spacesand How We Can Change Them Back Again, published by Sophia Institute Press.



Michael S. Rose