For some people, the sound of church bells means a call to prayer or to church services, while for others, ringing bells make the joyful noise of weddings, celebrations, and holidays.
Russian Orthodox church bells are meant mainly for sacred purposes, and they resound in ways that are unfamiliar in the west.
Soprano, alto, and bass bells fill the belltower at Epiphany Cathedral in Irkutsk Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
In Orthodox tradition, worshipers cross themselves three times, often before an icon or cross Photo credit: Helen Holter
Reviving Russian Orthodox BellsIn the 15th century, the Byzantine tradition of rhythmically beating on wood or metal semantrons with a mallet was gradually replaced in Russian Orthodox churches with bells large and small, allowing for complex sequences of sound focused on rhythms, not on familiar hymns or melodies. Such bells were banned and even destroyed during Soviet times; today there’s a resurgence of bell production as well as bell ringing in churches.
Russian Orthodox bells aren’t rung by a team, with each person pulling one rope so that the bell swings up and down, pealing out its tone. In Russia, the bell ringer – usually a church member – climbs up the church’s belltower and tolls all the bells himself, using a series of ropes pulled by hand (smaller bells) or by foot (larger bells) to make the clappers strike against stationery bells. Although it sounds technical, this is considered “sacred work” for those who toll these bells – often called “singing icons.”
The early Russian Orthodox hierarchy developed sets of specific musical patterns, called zvon, which were rung for different occasions, such as funerals and high holy days. Many of the zvon were lost during Soviet times, but, like the bells, they are being revived.
The zvonar, or bell ringer, is first blessed by a priest before beginning his sacred work Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
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The Blessed Bells of IrkutskI learned of these differences in bells on a sunny Siberian morning in Irkutsk, a classy and cultured town not far from Lake Baikal. Riding the rails along the Trans-Siberian Railway Classic Route from Vladivostok to Moscow, I welcomed the chance to explore the city, joining a Russian Orthodox Sunday church service at Epiphany Cathedral near the Angara River embankment.
Epiphany Cathedral’s belltower holds Irkutsk’s largest bell, weighing 12 tons Photo credit: Helen Holter
The service was just ending and the bells were tolling. I recorded a crowd of worshipers leaving, including young and old, a mother with babe in arms, and a father and son bowing and crossing themselves three times. Here’s a sample of what I saw and heard:
Epiphany Cathedral: A Church With Nine LivesEpiphany Cathedral was built in 1693 when Irkutsk was founded, destroyed by fire in 1716, and rebuilt again. Epiphany stands out from nearby churches for its show-off colors of pink, green, and white and its unrestrained baroque style – sometimes called “Siberian baroque.” Unlike other Russian Orthodox churches, Epiphany is decorated with Dutch tiles of vibrant flowers.
Brightly-colored murals decorate the cathedral, along with scriptural writings in Old Church Slavonic Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
Epiphany Cathedral is noted for its larger-than-life murals of saints and apostles Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
The cathedral was shut down during Soviet times, turned into a bread factory, and only after the fall of the Soviet Union was Epiphany Cathedral opened again as a place of worship. Perhaps that is why this place so moved me: it endured, and even thrived, through so much strife.
On that summer Sunday morning in Siberia I was honored to witness a spark of the spiritual life of Irkutsk, a spirited town where I hope to hear its sacred bells again, someday.
A light-filled baroque flavor brightens the interior of Epiphany Cathedral in Irkutsk Photo credit: Helge Pedersen
Travel to Siberia with MIRSiberia abounds in church history and church bells, such as those at Epiphany Cathedral in Irkutsk. On MIR’s small group tours and Trans-Siberian journeys, you can explore the cultural and religious history of this region. MIR’s Siberian experts also can hand-craft a custom, private journey that focuses on your interests, preferred destinations, and timeline.
(Top photo: Epiphany Cathedral has been part of Irkutsk since the town’s earliest history, built in 1693. Photo credit: Helen Holter)
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