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Bells and Russian Orthodox Peals


Bells are one of the most essential elements of an Orthodox Church. In the "Order of the Blessing of Bells" we read, "So let all that hear them ring, either during the day or at night, be inspired to the glorification of Thy saints."

Church-bell ringing is used to:

  • Summon the faithful to the divine services.
  • Express the triumphal joy of the Church and Her divine services.
  • Announce to those not present in the church the times of especially important moments in the services.

In addition, in some cites in Old Russia, bells summoned the people to gatherings. Also, bells were used to guide those lost in bad weather, and announced various dangers or misfortunes such as fires or floods. In days of peril to the nation they called the people to her defense. Bells proclaimed military victories and greeted those returning from the field of battle. Thus bells played a great part in the life of the Russian people. Bells were usually hung in special belltowers constructed over the Entry to a church or beside it.

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 dapper, 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, "I 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 belltower 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.

The Forms of
Bell Ringing and Their Names

The manner of church bell ringing is divided into two basic forms: 1. the measured ringing of the bell to announce church services, and 2. ringing of all the bells.

Ringing to Announce Church Services

By the "announcement of church services" is meant the measured strokes of one large bell. By this sound, the faithful are called together to the temple of God for divine services. In Russian it is known as the "Good news bell" because it announces the blessed, good news of the beginning of divine services.

The "good news peal" is accomplished thus. First there are produced three widely spaced, slow, prolonged strokes, so as to sustain the sound of the bell, followed by measured strokes. If the bell is very heavy or of great dimensions, the measured strokes are produced by the swinging of the clapper from side to side of the bell. If the bell is of medium size, then its clapper is drawn sufficiently close to the rim by a rope. The rope is attached to a wooden foot pedal, and with pressure from the bell-ringer's feet, the sound is produced.

The "good news peal" is subdivided in turn into two types:

  • The usual or hourly peal, produced with the largest bell.
  • The lenten or occasional peal, produced on the next largest bell on weekdays of the Great Fast.

If the church has several large bells, as is usually the case in cathedrals or large monasteries, then the size of the bells corresponds to their significance:

  • the holiday bell,
  • the Sunday bell,
  • the polyeleos bell,
  • the daily bell, and
  • the fifth, or small bell. Usually in parishes there are no more that two or three large bells.

The ringing of all the bells is subdivided as follows:

  • Trezvon (Peal) - thrice-sounded, multiple bell ringing. This is the simultaneous ringing of all the bells, then a brief pause, a second ringing of all the bells, again a brief pause, and a third ringing of all the bells, that is to say, a simultaneous ringing of all the bells three times, or a ringing in three refrains.
  • Dvuzvon - twice rung. This is the simultaneous ringing of all the bells twice, in two refrains.
  • Perezvon (Chain Ringing) - this is the ringing of each bell in turn, with either one or several strokes of each bell, beginning with the largest to the very smallest, and then repeating several times.
  • 4) Perebor (Toll) - This is the slow, single peal of each bell in turn, beginning with the smallest to the largest, and after the stroke on the largest bell all the bells are immediately struck together; then this is repeated several times.

The Use of the Bells and its Meaning
Bells For All Night Vigil

  • Before the beginning of the All Night Vigil - the "good news peal," which concludes with the simultaneous ringing of all the bells, or the trezvon.
  • At the beginning of the reading of the Six Psalms comes the twice-rung, simultaneous peal, the dvuzvon. The dvuzvon announces the beginning of the second part of the All Night Vigil - Matins. It expresses the joy of the Resurrection of Christ, the incarnation of the Second person of the Holy Trinity, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The beginning of Matins, as we know, recalls the Birth of Christ, and begins with the doxology of the angels in their revelation to the shepherds of Bethlehem, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men. In popular usage, the twice-rung bell at the All Night Vigil is called the second-bell (the second bell peal after the beginning of the Allnight Vigil).
  • At the time of the singing of the polyeleos, before the reading of the Gospel, the trezvon, the thrice performed, simultaneous ringing of all the bells, is rung, expressing joy in celebrating the event. At the Sunday All Night Vigil, this ringing expresses the joy and festivity of the Resurrection of Christ. In some localities it is performed at the time of the chanting, "In that we have beheld the Resurrection of Christ..." Customarily in guide books, this peal is called the "bells before the Gospel." In popular usage, the trezvon in the All Night Vigil (the bells before the Gospel) is called the "third ringing."
  • At the beginning of the Song of the Most-holy Theotokos, "My soul doth magnify the Lord...," occurs a short good news peal, composed of nine strokes of the large bell (customary in Kiev and in all of Little Russia).
  • On Great Feasts, at the conclusion of the Vigil, the trezvon occurs.
  • At Pontifical services, after every All Night Vigil, the trezvon is rung, accompanying the bishop as he leaves the church.

The bells for the Liturgy

Before the beginning of the reading of the Third Hour, the good news peal for the Liturgy is rung, and at the end of the Sixth Hour, before the beginning of the Liturgy, the trezvon.

If two Liturgies are served (an early one and a later one), then the good news peal for the early Liturgy is simpler and slower than the one for the later Liturgy, and it is customarily done not using the large bell.

At Pontifical divine services, the good news peal for the Liturgy begins at the indicated time. As the bishop approaches the church, the trezvon is rung. When the bishop enters the church, the trezvon ceases and the good news peal resumes and continues throughout the vesting of the bishop. At the end of the Sixth Hour, the trezvon is rung again. Then, during the Liturgy, the good news peal is rung at the beginning of the Eucharistic Canon, the most important part of the Liturgy, to announce the time of the sanctification and the transformation of the Holy Gifts.

According to T.K. Nikolsky, in the book Ustav Bogosluzhenia, it is said that the good news peal before "It is Meet" begins with the words, "It is meet and right to worship the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit" and continues until the chanting of "It is truly meet to bless Thee, the Theotokos." It is also the instruction in the Book Novaia Skrizhal by Archbishop Benjamin (published in S.P.B., 1908, p. 213.).

In practice, the good news peal for "It is meet..." is shorter, composed of twelve strokes. In southern Russia the good news peal for "It is meet..." is performed customarily before the beginning of the Eucharistic Canon, at the time of the chanting of the Creed (12 strokes, 1 stroke for each clause of the Creed). The good news peal before "It is meet...," according to the custom of Russian churches was introduced during the time of Patriarch Joachim of Moscow (1690 A.D.), similar to the custom of the West, where they ring during the words "Take, eat..."

At the conclusion of the Liturgy on all Great Feasts the trezvon is rung. Also, after every Liturgy served by a bishop the trezvon is rung to accompany the bishop as he leaves the church.

On the feast of the Nativity, the trezvon is rung all the day of the feast, from Liturgy until Vespers. Also, on the feast of the Resurrection of Christ Pascha.

The good news peal before Bright Matins begins before the All-night Vigil and continues until the Procession of the Cross, and the festive trezvon is rung from the beginning of the Procession of the Cross to its end and even longer.

Before the Paschal Liturgy, the good news peal and the trezvon are rung. During the Paschal Liturgy itself, at the time of the Gospel reading, the perezvon is rung, with seven strokes on each bell (the number seven expresses the fullness of the glory of God). This festive ringing of bells signals the homily on the Gospel of Christ in all languages. Upon completion of the reading of the Gospel, the perezvon concludes with the joyful, victorious trezvon.

During all of Bright Week, the trezvon occurs every day, from the end of the Liturgy until Vespers. On all Sundays from Pascha until Ascension, after the Liturgy the trezvon is rung.

On the feast day of a church, at the conclusion of the Liturgy before the beginning of the Moleben, the short good news peal and the trezvon are rung, and at the conclusion of the Moleben, the trezvon.

Whenever there is a procession around the church, the trezvon is rung.

Before the Royal Hours, the good news peal is usually rung on the large bell, and before the Great Holy Week Hours, the Lenten good news peal in rung on the small bell. As at the Royal Hours, so also at the Great Holy Week Hours before each Hour the bell is rung. Before the Third Hour the bell is struck three times, before the Sixth Hour, six times and before the Ninth Hour, nine times. Before the Typica and Great Compline, twelve times. If during the fast a feast day is celebrated, then for the Hours they do not strike separately for each Hour.

On Matins of Good Friday, when the Twelve Gospel Readings of the Lord's Passion are read, besides the usual good news peal and trezvon at the beginning of matins, there is a good news peal before each Gospel reading: before the first Gospel reading - one stroke on the large bell, before the second gospel reading - two strokes, before the third Gospel reading - three strokes, and so forth.

Upon conclusion of Matins, as the faithful carry the "Holy Thursday fire" to their homes, the trezvon is rung.


Missionary Leaflet # E50a
Copyright 2001 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)


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