The Church Bells of Eastern Europe

Church bells, today underestimated and hardly present in the everyday life, should be considered as an important and symbolic elements of a pan European cultural heritage. From the time of the Middle Ages they determined the life, space, and time of the basic communities: villages, small towns, and city districts. Endowed with a sacral authority, they marked both the annual and daily cycles, commemorated important events, or announced emergencies, such as fires or sieges. The power and authority of these heavy bronze objects, suspended high in church towers and hardly visible from the ground, was not based only on their material qualities, but rather derived there from. Bells, through the medium of sound, not only permeated a community and bound it together, but they also delimited its territorial boundaries and brought order to its life. They were a widely shared patrimony, which shaped the identity of everyone who heard them and knew how to decipher their message. Even the simplest village bells, not usually of the greatest artistic and musical quality, were endowed with such a power. Often cast by itinerant artisans from discarded metal brought by local inhabitants, these bells were treated with the highest respect and played the same role in celebrating the same festivities as those made for the major cathedrals. Their consecration rites, celebrated by the community as a whole, were embedded with sacral authority. Bells not only defined the local order but also inscribed the community into a larger religious, state, or national framework. They were rung to mark national feasts and to make important public announcements: each city, country and state had its own paramount, most valued, and symbolic bells. Thus, with their own, easily comprehensible language church bells communicated significant events, marked time, and provided focus on communal and national identity.

Bells were used throughout Europe – in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran rites – however it is in the cultural landscape of Eastern Europe that they resounded the loudest. Here, the ringing of Roman Catholic bells interfered with the Russian Orthodox ones. In Orthodoxy the use of bells was considered spiritual: they referred to as “singing icons” and blessed with a ritual similar to that of Baptism. They were also played on a different way: always by tolling (and not – by swinging), in a complex rhythmical (and not melodic) way, accentuating with a different ringing the various liturgies and its parts. Moreover, in the predominant rural societies of Eastern Europe bells often constituted the only determinant of collective identity well into the 20th century.

The removing of bells had a profound social, religious and cultural impact. From the early modern era it was used as a strong political weapon: they were demonstratively smashed by the Calvinist and Jacobinst iconoclast. At the time of the French Revolution the silence that reigned in the city of Paris after the 1795 municipality decree ordering the taking down of all bells and their melting into cannons should be considered not only as the most significant and far reaching act of iconoclasm but also the as the most effective way of imposing the new de-Christianised social order. Similarly, at the time of the Stalinist terror bells became one of the strongest opponents in the successful imposing of the new social order. They were taken down even from the oldest Russian monasteries and churches and melted down along with the destruction of monasteries and churches, the persecution of monks and the ban on religious practices.

The removal and destruction of bells is a phenomenon as old as the instruments themselves. It occurred not only during social and political up wheals but in particular at the time of wars, when bells were taken down and melted as a source of weapon material. In particular, large-scale requisitions of the kind were pursued at the time of the two world conflicts. Bells were taken down by all the belligeant parties on all fronts, however, it is the bell landscape of Eastern Europe, which became the most affected by the war requisitions. At the time of both wars numerous towns and villages remained silent for months and even years. Numerous parish communities, often incurring large risk, buried underground the bells trying to save them both from confiscations and from bombings. Others provided the bells with inscriptions testifying to the looting and to the damage done to the community. They also tried to replace the empty tower bells with provisional ‘instruments’, like ones made out of weapons.

Paradoxically, it was at the time of the wartime requisitions that bells became an important element of academic inquiry and interest. During both wars their removal was accompanied by a planned survey aiming at the registration of each bell and at careful documentation of the historic ones. The opportunity to analyse closely the objects, which high on the towers were hardly accessible for inquiry, was indeed unique and very tempting. The research premises were however often intuitive, as campanology was not yet established as a separate research field. The surveys were either organized and official (like in the case of survey projects pursued by the German and Austrian armies during both world conflicts), either they were spontaneous and based on the initiative of the communities and local civic societies.

One of the most interesting and wide-reaching projects of the kind was pursued in the years 1915–1918  in Russia by a network of Polish voluntary societies in the extremely difficult reality of the war and revolutionary chaos. Accordingly, in 1915 when the Russian army was withdrawing from its Western dominions, it pursued a massive and chaotic evacuation of bells from the territories of today central and North-Eastern Poland, Lithuania and part of Belarus. The catholic and orthodox bells were confiscated by the retreating Russian army in a situation of complete chaos, and without regard to their artistic quality. They were stored in large groups, piled on top of one another, in provisional storehouses (usually open-air) arranged near the stations of the train lines crossing the vast areas leading from the Western outskirts of the Empire to Caucasus and to Siberia. The surveys were aimed at registering all the Polish bells, determining their whereabouts (parish of origin), and obtaining legal confirmation from the Russian military guardians of the storage places. For the Polish surveyors the bells were an essential element of national heritage in the first place. They surveyors looked very superficially at the technical and musical properties of the bells, focusing instead at their artistic style and historic inscriptions. The bells were analysed not as instruments, but rather as symbolic works of art reflecting the glories of Polish national history and as a binding element of national identity. Thus in the survey instructions particular importance was paid to the oldest bells (medieval, renaissance and baroque) and to the exact transcription and facsimile reproduction of the inscriptions and of the decorative elements. The oldest and most precious historic bells from the main churches and cathedrals were equally important as the most humble and simple village ones. Arguably, the survey documentation as well as the provenance inscriptions painted on the bells played a fundamental role in their identification and in the formulation of claims in the aftermath of the two world conflicts.

The turbulent war bell histories had a profound impact on the life and memory of the communities. Moreover, the stories of their removal, hidings, destruction or returns constituted an important element of a larger national identity. After 1918 they were described in novels and poems and in 1938 they served as a plot of a popular movie.

A Russian Orthodox believer touches one of the church bells as they arrive in St. Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008, on the way to Moscow. The massive Russian church bells that hung for decades at Harvard in the United States was returned to Russia, nearly 80 years after they were rescued from Stalin’s religious purges by a U.S. industrialist, Charles R. Crane, who bought the 18 brass bells from the Soviet government in 1930. In exchange for returning the bells, Harvard will receive a set of replicas cast in Russia and blessed by the patriarch. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

The often dramatic stories of bells removal, destruction and salvage repeated itself during the Second World War. Nazi confiscations both at home, on the territories of the Axis Powers and the occupied lands, concerned 175,000 bells, of which more than 150,000 were melted down, lost or destroyed. The most precious historical bells were saved, however thousands of simple village bells never returned on their bell towers. Numerous parish communities, often incurring large risk, buried underground the bells trying to save them both from confiscations and from bombings. The local authorities attempted at extorting a right to research the bells and therefore postpone and even to scuttle their requisition. Others provided the bells with inscriptions testifying to the looting and to the damage done to the community.

The dramatic war-time stories of bells, passed from generation to generation, are still today an important element of identity of single communities and of the nations. Thus, the 2008 return of the bells to the Danilov Monastery in Moscow was a true national celebration. The 18 bells, one of the few complete sets of pre-revolutionary Russian bells where purchased at the time of the Great Terror by an American philanthropist and donated to Harvard University. The Danilov Monastery, which was converted to a colony for the children of dissidents in 1983 became the first monastery to be officially returned to the Orthodox Church. Its belfry was restored and provided with 15 bells from various defunct churches. Few years later, as a result of diplomatic high rank negotiations the bells were returned to their original setting. Even more dramatic and still far from being solved is the history of two Greek Orthodox bells – Ivan and Mykhailo – from the small village of Lutowiska in the Carpathian mountains (today Poland). During the second world war the bells were taken down and hidden by the members of the community several times – following each German and Soviet invasion. In 1951, following subsequent fights between the Polish and Ukrainian communities and final territorial and populations exchanges, the The Ukrainian community Lutowiska  was resettled to the South of Ukraine, very far from its fatherlands. Just before the departure, in 1951, Ivan and Mykhailo, were once again hidden in the soil. The expulsed community, which managed to build a new church in its new Ukrainian homeland, in 1999 unearthed the bells and in vain asked for their return.

The wartime photographs, drawings, posters, newspaper illustrations or paintings presented in this gallery illustrate very well the cultural phenomenon of bells and the central place in the formation of European identities.