Not many manufactered goods had such a great diffusion as bell had. Since ever bell catch everybody's fancy, and it assumed only apparently distant meanings for several cultures.
Bronze is suely the material which most characterized the sound of the bell. Bronze was born casting copper and stagno, about 5000-4000 b.C.. The most part of ancient bells come from the Assyrian culture. Considering recent archaeological discoveries happened in different West Asian areas, it seems that first "ringing bronzes" were realized by old Armenian people.
Since their origins bells have always been related with magical and religious ceremonials. Their ringing performed protective and evocative functions, to send away evil forces and to bring near the good ones.
In Palestina, during 13°-10 Century b.C., for example, priests used to hang some little bells to their cassocks, so to be protected from malign spirits haunting holy places.
Far East has a millenary history in the art of smelting bells. During Shang dinasty (16°-11° Century b.C.), carillon mounted bells were realized. In a district of South China, a huge carillon-system of bells has been found. Those bells are so big to occupy a whole stage of a modern concert-hall. This system dates back to 5° Century b.c., it is composed by 65 bells and each bell can produce two different sounds.
For West culture bell has always had a foundamental role as a Christianity symbol. The church bell, besides to gather together all the believers, is destined to get away the evil and to attract God's protection. A rich and suggestive symbolism is attribuited to it. Metal hardness represents preacher's strenght, iron clapper stands for preacher's tongue, bell tolling is the call to preacher to become a honesty symbol. Chain on clapper hangs represents meditation, and the hand gripping the clapper is the tongue moderation. Framework wood supporting bells stands for Christe's cross; finally iron joining bell and wood represents preacher's charity. Custom to affix symbols and inscriptions grew up during the Middle Ages, always as mediumiatic and protective element. During this period bell had to assembly and incite to fight, assuming a clear force and power meaning, both for its metal nature and the sound produced. This is visible by the custom to tie bells during Holy Week, replacing them with wooden instruments.
During the Second World War bells use was not surely spiritual. In Germany and East Europe 33'000 bells were removed to be cast again and transformed into weapons. At the end of the conflict many of them came back ringing in their original churches or cathedrals, such as the bell of S.Stefano Cathedral in Vienna.
Finally we must remember the high symbolic value that the bell has got throguh all Catholic life. It announces to Catholic people a new life is born, and marks death by slow and deep tolling.
Copyright CAPANNI - March 2000