The history of bells

The main function of a belfry is the tolling of bells. The tradition of ringing bells during the service in Catholic churches dates back to the 7th century. These musical instruments are attributed to the group of so-called idiophones. The sound of bells is composed of a large variety of humming sounds, which in the ideal case correspond to the structure of the upper register octave. Bells are cast from bronze (approximately 77 % copper and 23 % tin), and are decorated with ornaments, coats of arms and quotes from the Holy Scripture. Before mounting them onto the belfry, church bells are consecrated and very often named after the saints. Bells are attached to a specially adapted beam and hung on a revolving axis, and a free-falling clapper made from forged or cast metal is set up inside. The dimensions of the bell, the clapper and the basis are precisely calculated, as it allows achieving the desired frequency of strikes.

The history of bells began three thousand years ago in Asia. The most ancient bell was found in Babylon. The first bells were produced from metal plate, and legend goes that it was Bishop Pontius Meronius Paulinus who cast the first bronze bell circa 410, having borrowed the form of a wild flower. The classical form of bells, as well as the tradition to use relief ornaments and inscriptions for decoration, took root in the early Middle Ages. The earliest bell that has survived in Europe was produced in 613 and today is held in Cologne. The casting of bells flourished in the Gothic period, when new prayer houses were built in large numbers.

Bells served different functions in different cultures. In ancient Rome they invited people to bathhouses and gatherings, announced the beginning and the end of wars, and tolled when an armistice was concluded, the winners were saluted, and during ceremonial festivities. In the early 7th century, Pope Sabinian introduced the custom of ringing bells at the canonical hours; until that time, trumpets were used for that purpose. In the Middle Ages people believed that the sound of bells scares the evil spirits away, stops the spread of epidemics and diverts the storms. Today, the tolling of church bells invites the believers for a joint prayer and announces church and public holidays.

In Lithuania, the appearance of large bells is related to the name of Grand Duke of Lithuania Algirdas. The master K. S. Skobeltas cast the first large bell for this ruler in the second half of the 14th century. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, bells and cannons were most often cast in weapon foundries by the same masters. Sigismund Augustus established such a foundry in the territory of the Lower Castle in the 16th century. From the 16th century onwards, bells began to be cast in Varniai, Kaunas and Nesvizh as well.

The most famous bell founder in Vilnius was Jan Delamars, who worked in the Vilnius cannon foundry in today’s Pučkoriai. His bells were distinguished by their melodiousness and sumptuousness, and were very strong. Delamars’s bells tolled in the towers of the Vilnius Cathedral, the Church of the Saint Apostles Peter and Paul, and the Pažaislis ensemble in Kaunas.

In the belfry of the Vilnius Cathedral, bells were often replaced due to various reasons. During the wars bells were destroyed, appropriated by the occupiers for the war needs and used as raw metal. The huge bell of Sigismund in the Vilnius Cathedral, to sound which twelve men were needed, burned in a fire in 1610. At the end of World War I, the retreating Russian army took along church bells en masse, and during World War II, the cathedral belfry remained without bells.  

In the Soviet period, approximately twenty bells were brought to the belfry of the Vilnius Cathedral from various churches in Lithuania, which had been closed. There were plans to install a carillon in the belfry. With the aim to tune the sound of different bells, they were drilled, polished and milled, but the plan did not succeed – the bells could not be tuned. After the reestablishment of Independence in Lithuania, part of the bells was returned to the respective churches, and part is exhibited in this room.

In 2002, six new bells were consecrated in the Cathedral Square – it was a gift from the Archdiocese of Cologne. Today, the great bells of the Vilnius Cathedral weighing from 475 to 2.500 kg announce the beginning and the end of the day, invite to the Holy Mass and ceremonial celebrations in the Cathedral Square.


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