Journeying over mountains and through valleys, following winding rivers and rough or paved roads, one scene that commonly meets the traveller’s eyes is that of a tower in the distance. Drawing nearer, it is possible to recognize a cross on it. The stained-glass windows cannot yet be seen, the sound of the organ cannot be heard, nor can the sacred statues be distinguished; yet there is no doubt: it is a church belfry.
Alongside the church and rising above it, bell towers defy time and distance, giving direction to Christian life and announcing God’s presence to all.
Tall, slender and imposing, they manifest the grandeur of the sacred place and dominate with a mixture of charm and strength proper to that which rises up in search of Heaven.
Christians have been erecting towers next to churches since the 7th century in various shapes and sizes – true works of architecture. The custom developed further in the next century and, from the 11th century onwards they became an integral part of large cathedrals and monasteries, as well as small chapels. They are admired by all, but perhaps few have stopped to ask themselves what purpose they serve, as the typical observer would assume that they fulfil a simply aesthetic requirement.
Like the towers of medieval and even pre-medieval buildings, the belfry is a symbol of fortitude and vigilance; from its lofty vantage point, it encompasses everything around it and scrutinizes distant horizons. It is like a keep – religious rather than military – of the Lord of all the earth.
Nevertheless, its practical function is to house the bells whose ringing has long been associated with liturgical worship. Coming from the Latin word signum [ed. sino in Portuguese], the bell truly constituted a sign for the Catholic people. This is why it had to be raised aloft, to be heard by all and guide the lives of the faithful from the belfry.
When it struck the hour of the Holy Mass, they would leave their dwellings, their fields and their tasks. At the pealing of the bronze, clerics were prompted to their cells or their labours to go to the singing of the liturgical offices.
Everyone knew very well how to interpret its message, whether it was to add grandeur to a solemnity or to call for prayers for the deceased; whether it was announcing a storm or another scourge of nature, or sounding the alarm for war. An ancient Latin distich describes the voice of command emanating from the belfry:
Convoco, signo, noto, compello, concino, ploro, / arma, dies, horas, fulgura, festa, rogos.1
Thus, accompanying the life of the church and guiding it, the bell tower can represent, in a more sublime symbolism, the prophets and providential men that God constitutes as a sign and sends as emissaries of His will in every time and place.
Rising from the earth to Heaven, they make themselves heard by all, recalling the primacy of divine praise, announcing chastisements and heavenly interventions, and directing the people towards God. The prophets, above all, mark the hours of the Almighty in history. ◊
1 From the Latin: I call to arms, mark the days, know the hours, foresee the lightning, chant the feasts, and weep the supplications.