A magnificent and very rare bronze Angelus bell

A Highly Important Medieval Angelus Bell


This highly important medieval bell is an extremely rare survival. Having escaped the near wholesale destruction of church bells at different periods throughout French history, it maintains an especial significance for its decorative inscription, made using an early form of moveable type that precedes the technique used by Gutenberg by as much as 150 years. Preserved in remarkable condition and retaining a large portion of its wooden superstructure, the present example is the most important Angelus bell to emerge onto the market for decades. 

The body of the bell is elongated in form, a profile typical of bells dating from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, providing a date range for the present example. The dedicatory inscription to the Virgin Mary, which accords with other examples made in around 1300, confirms this guide date. Both the shape that the bell founders created and the lettering of the inscription indicate the southwest of France as the origin.  The ornately decorated letters, with lilies in every vacant space around each letter, are more common in the Midi than in the North and the spelling ‘gracia’ rather that ‘gratia’ would also suggest a southern provenance. The particularly large wooden superstructure, in contrast to northern examples, also matches those found in the south where the equal weight of the bell and its stock would have enabled a 180 degree rotation during ringing.

The present Angelus is particularly well crafted and the process of the bell’s construction is legible on the surface of the bronze.  The bell-founders first defined the inner cavity in clay by shaping it with a rotating tool called a forma.  This core was then covered in wax, and a second forma used to create the outer surface of the bell in the wax.  The parallel circular lines of the turning of the forma tool on the wax are visible on the surface of the bronze.  Once the craftsmen had make the wax they then added the inscription, letter by letter, applying small wax squares that had been cut out and stamped with the letters using pre-made, reusable puncheons.  These wax letters were then applied to the surface of the bell and the soft wax that glued the letters onto the surface can be seen oozing out from under some of the letters. This lettering technique first emerged during the second half of the thirteenth century, and significantly demonstrates of the use of moveable type in Europe at least a century before Gutenberg.[1]  The finished wax model bell was then covered in clay and invested with bell metal using the lost wax process. The alloy has a high tin content, consistent with its medieval date.[2]

The inscription dedicates this bell to the Virgin, and echoes the words of the Angelus prayer. [3] Named after the Angel Gabriel, the Angelus invokes his words at the Annunciation, and originated with the eleventh-century monastic custom of reciting three Hail Marys during the evening bell.  In 1268 St Bonaventure, who took his degree in Paris with Thomas Aquinas in 1257, urged the universal adoption of this custom. Pope John XXII granted indulgences on the saying of the Angelus in both 1318 and 1327 from his seat in Avignon.  It may therefore be no coincidence that a group of late-thirteenth- and early-fourteenth-century bells dedicated to the Virgin are found in southwest France.

The survival and preservation of this Angelus bell are both quite remarkable.  It survived the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), which saw an enormous destruction of bells, the bronze being used to cast ordnance.  The process of attrition continued during the French Revolution, which resulted in the systematic destruction of bells throughout France.  With the decree of 2 November, 1789 the Assemblée nationale put all ecclesiastical goods at the disposal of the state, and the Convention nationale permitted only one bell in each city, with all others to be sent to the mint to be used in the manufacture of cannon and new coinage. This resulted in the smelting of some 100,000 bells over the next three years.[4]  It is therefore hardly surprising that in 1903 Joseph Berthelé was able to identify only nine church bells in France that could be confidently dated to the thirteenth century. [5] In 2010 Thierry Gonon listed only ten twelfth- or thirteenth-century bells and only eighteen examples from the fourteenth century. [6] The excellent condition of this bell suggests that it was not hung in a bell tower, where it would have been open to the elements, but rather that it was in an enclosed, perhaps private, chapel. 

Several bells from the south of France show clearly related similarities to the current example, particularly those from Couzeix and Chalus, both in the Haute-Vienne department in Limousin and both dated to the thirteenth century by Lecler, and to the thirteenth or fourteenth century by Berthelé.[7]  The bells of Lherm and Saccourvielle, both in the Haute-Garonne, near Toulouse, bear inscriptions of a similar style and ornamentation.

In the medieval world bells provided a rhythm to the day, calling the faithful to prayer, and announcing birth, baptism, marriage and death.  Bells warded off medieval life and their enormous emotional grip created a community cohesion that engendered both affection and great loyalty. The continuing iconographic significance of bells in Western culture makes the present example a highly important survival from the great age of scholasticism.

A magnificent and very rare bronze Angelus bell

[1] Joseph Berthelé, Enquêtes campanaires: nôtes, études et documents sur les cloches et les fondeurs de cloches du VIIIe au XXe siècle, Montpellier, 1903, p.366.

[2] An XRF analysis of the bell is available.

[3] Luke 1:28: ‘et ingressus angelus ad eam dixit: ave gratia plena Dominus tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus’.

[4] Berthelé 1903, p.369; André Lecler, Études sur les cloches de l’ancien diocèse de Limoges, Limoges, 1902, pp.17-18.

[5] François Mathieu, Les cloches d’église du Québec: sujets de culture, Quebec, 2010; ‘Secularization and the Fate of Church Bells During the Revolution: French Pamphlet Collections at the Newberry Library’, n.d., http://publications.newberry.org/frenchpamphlets/?p=1130

[6] Daniel Touzaud, ‘Deux cloches gothiques exhumées d’une cachette à Ebréon (Charente)’, Bulletin de la Société Archéologique et Historique de la Charente I, 8 (1910), pp.186-87.

[7]Thierry Gonon, Les cloches en France au Moyen Âge, Paris, 2010, pp.197-99.

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Algermissen, Konrad. Lexikon der Marienkunde. Regensburg: Pustet, 1967.

Berthelé, Joseph. Enquêtes campanaires: notes, études et documents sur les cloches et les fondeurs de cloches du VIIIe au XXe siècle. Montpellier: Delord-Boehm et Martial, 1903.

“Pourquoi la vieille cloche d’Ornolac ne peut pas être du XIe siècle.” In Enquêtes campanaires: notes, études et documents sur les cloches et les fondeurs de cloches du VIIIe au XXe siècle., 347–375. Montpellier: Delord-Boehm et Martial, 1903.

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Loi relative à la distribution de la monnoie de cuivre & de celle qui proviendra de la fonte des cloches: donnée à Paris, le 6 août 1791. Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1791.

Loi relative à la fonte des cloches des églises supprimées dans le département de Paris: donnée à Paris, le 28 juin 1791. Paris: Imprimerie nationale exécutive du Louvre, 1793.

Neri, Elisabetta, and Silvia Lusuardi Siena. De campanis fundendis: la produzione di campane nel Medioevo tra fonti scritte ed evidenze archeologiche. Milan: V&P, 2006.

Price, Frank Percival. Campanology, Europe, 1945-47. A report on the condition of carillons on the continent of Europe as a result of the recent war; on the sequestration and melting down of bells by the Central Powers; and on research into the tonal qualities of bells made accessible by war-time dislodgment. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1948.

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