Monday, January 24, 2011

Ring Joyfully, Oh Bells

Millet's painting, "The Angelus" 

The Sound of the Bells.

In the 19th century, the bells of Catholic churches throughout Germany and the rest of Europe, rang each day to call people to religious observances of many kinds.

The painting above is simply called "The Angelus" and reflects a religious custom as it was observed in France at the time of the artist, Jean-Francois Millet.  Three times a day - in the early morning, at noon, and finally in the late afternoon or early evening, people were called to prayer by the bell/s in the tower of the church.

Because the bell was such an important part of the religious observances of the people and also a reminder to them of the presense of God in their daily lives, the Mabilon bell foundry in the little town of Saarburg played a major role in the history of our ancestors. 
The Mabilon Bell Factory in Saarburg

The Mabilon Family of Bell Makers

From 1770 on, the Mabilon bell factory produced the bells not only for bell towers in the surrounding villages but also for large churches all over Germany and beyond.   It was still a functioning bell foundry in 2002 when I lived in a nearby rental apartment for three weeks; but it had stopped production and become a unique museum by the time I returned in 2004.  The youngest descendant of this family of bell makers was ready to retire and there was no one to continue the production of Mabilon foundry bells.   Yet the buildings remained open to give visitors a chance to experience the complexity of a trade and art form that was fast disappearing all over Europe.

The Mabilon family of bell makers dates back to the 16th Century in Anjou, France.  By 1770, Urbanus Mabilon had established a permanent place for his bell foundry - in Saarburg outside the city walls.  This is where his descendants continued to make bells for more than 230 years, never revealing the secret of the art of the shape and sound of a Mabilon bell.

The site for his bell factory was the long street called simply "Staden."  It was a location that boasted proximity to the Saar River ports of the barge makers of the town. The site provide easier transportation of the finished bells and also close proximity to the barges loaded with the coal and ore he needed delivered to do the firing of each bell.  The clay deposits on the opposite side of the river gave Mabilon much of the material he used in the making of the bells.  Urbanus Mabilon married Anna Maria Stocky, the daughter of the Saarburg bell-maker Johann Wilhelm Stocky, and the marriage united the two bell-making families.

St. Antonius in Trier
The Mabilon foundry cast bells for major churches, such as the five bells for the parish church of St. Anthony in Trier; and also for the small village churches such as Schoden, Palzem, Piesport and Wincheringen.  Urbanus introduced rich Rococo bell decorations and often added the bell and cannon seal from his coat of arms.

The Bell Foundry Museum

Although the last bell was cast in 2003, the Saarburg workshop looks as if the master and his helpers are just taking a short break.  It is, in fact, Germany’s only bell foundry museum.

Because of the foundry's perfect state of preservation, it is a unique historical witness to its era. When the church and chapel bells ring in the towns and in the countryside, few are aware of how much skill and craftsmanship, care and effort, are involved in casting a bell. The art of the bell maker, practiced by only a few today, is one of the most exceptional and most time-honored professions, and one which the famous German poet, Friedrich Schiller honored with his world famous poem” The Song of the Bell.”

"What in this pit, with hidden powers
the hands with help of fire create.
High up in yonder belfrey-tower,
will speak of us in tones elate."

The Bell Mold is Prepared

Schiller's lines of poetry are better understood when one learns the skill that goes into the making of a bell.  The core or inside of a bell is prepared with semicircular bricks, which are coated with clay. The core is formed with the help of wooden" ribs" in the shape of the bells profile. Once finished, the core mirrors the interior of the bell.
Bell molds

The core is dried by a fire, which is lit underneath its hollow inside. Then the shapers or molders, who normally are highly trained experts, apply the second layer of clay from which they form, with the aid of the template, a complete model bell which is also known as the" false" bell.  This is followed by another thick layer of clay which forms the cope or outer mold. After all three parts are completely dry, a pulley is used to hoist up the cope.

The false bell is now carefully broken up and the pieces removed. This is relatively easy to do as a coating of graphite or wax had been applied between the individual layers of clay.  Finally, the exterior cope is placed over the core again. In the place where the false bell used to be is now a cavity into which the molten metal can be poured.

For decoration, mirror images of ornamental inscriptions and pictures made of bees wax are applied to the "false" bell-layer, thus leaving their imprint on the inside of the cope. Later they appear clearly visible on the outside of the finished bell.

The finished bell mould consisting of core and cope is then dug firmly into the earth of the casting pit in order to prevent the invlowing metal from breaking the mould.  By the time the form is firmly covered and embedded in the earth, the bell-metal, composed of 78 parts of copper and 22 parts of tin, is already melting in the furnace.

The Religious Ceremony when the Bell is Cast

The casting itself is a dignified and moving event.  The clergyman who ordered the bell and members of his parish gather around the casting pit during the bell casting. Just above the fireplace is a niche.  A candle burns next of the statue of St. Joseph – an unbroken tradition since time immemorial. A dignified silence reigns; instructions are given in low voices already reflecting the atmosphere in which the bell will soon perform its duty.

Meanwhile, the craftsmen have taken up their positions at the casting.  Clay-made gutters and canals lead from the furnace to the individual bands of the bell mold. Everything is prepared for casting.  In the dim light of the workshop the priest and the master bell makers say short prayer asking God to bless the men’s work and make the cast a success.

Then with the words “in God’s name” the master bell maker knocks the plug out and the freed white hot glowing mass finds its way, bubbling and sizzling, to the bell mold under the earth. In a muted voice the master gives the few necessary instructions to his helpers. Hissing, the hot air escapes in a blue green flame through the “windpipe” of the mould. Within a few minutes the cast is completed. A gurgling sound indicates that the cavity left by the “false bell” is now filled with the molten metal. A grateful prayer and a moment of silence complete the casting, a truly unique experience.

It takes a few days for the mold to cool enough for the bell to be removed from the pit. When it first appears it is still black and unsightly, but with the help of some sand and water it soon gains a beautiful silver grey gloss. Only the clapper needs to be attached and the bell is ready for installation, but not before the bell expert concludes his expertise on the accuracy and pureness of the desired tones, ensuring that the bell is a real tribute to the master, his helpers, and their skills.

Information sheet from Museum Bell Foundry Mabilon, Staden 130, Saarburg
Saarburg: Little Venice on the Saar River,
1000 Jahre Saarburg, 964-1964, Buchdruckerei Wilhelm Rassier
 Schiller's "The Song of the Bell and other Poems," translated by Thomas C. Zimmerman


  1. Anonymous10:28 PM

    dear kathy

    lovely to see that painting which was everywhere when i was a child here in france ; the bells still ring the angelus in most places including my own village .
    a pleasant walk to the bell museum . doesn't that remind you of one day ?

  2. Yes it does, Josiane - in fact that sunny-day walk gave me the basic material for this blog, as well as a delightful time with a new friend!

    I always heard the bells in the small village in Wisconsin where I grew up and I knew Peter, the bell ringer. I was a school girl then. Petie, as we called him, always came out of the bell tower room with a smile on his face. I think he loved those bells.

  3. A wonderful post, Kathy.

    I do miss Church bells very much. In the UK bells are totally different from continental, particularly German bells. Here bellringing consists of playing'a peal', which is almost a musical instrument.

    I love the sound of large bells ringing just the one or two or three sonorous notes, all coming together to make a very distinctive sound. In our village and later on, the town, we could differentiate between the churches by their bells. They still can tell the bells from different cathedrals apart.

    Particularly at Easter the sound of the bells from churches all over town was deafening but wonderful.

    And of course I know Schiller's Glocke or better 'Das Lied von der Glocke'.

  4. James6:04 PM

    Hello. I found your blog by looking up 'Bell Ringing Germany'.

    What an interesting post. I'm 17 and bell ringing is my hobby in England; ringing every week and the occasional Sunday. Bell Ringing is a much-done thing in England still.

    I may eventually like to move to Germany. Whilst there is this history for sure, do you know if the practice is continued?

    I am doubtful only because the Dove's guide (directory of most places to ring worldwide) does not collate any information for Germany. And I would really not know where else to find out.

    Thank you.

  5. You've asked a question, James, that I myself cannot answer. But I do know someone who lives in Trier and might have the expertise to tell you what you want to know. Please go to the "About Me" section at the top of the blog to get my e-mail address. If you ask your question again in an e-mail, I will forward it on. You didn't say but I'm assuming you are not looking for a job - you just want to continue your hobby in Germany.