Between the tangible and intangible

“SIGNVM”. Latin word used between the 16th and 17th centuries with the double meaning of symbol or sign, which gave rise to the word sino (meaning “bell”) in some neo-Latin languages, such as Portuguese. The bell is an integral part of the cultural landscape and soundscape of the Western world. Although it is a material artefact, this exhibition presents the bell from an intangible perspective. Indeed, the Cultural and Immaterial Heritage Convention (Paris, 2003) acknowledges this interdependence between the material and the immaterial. Accordingly, the exhibition aims to present a record of the intangible value of Portugal’s bell tradition, through a visit that explores the techniques used for casting bells, often passed on from generation to generation, as well as manual bell ringing. It also looks at how the bell acquired a sacred and apotropaic character in the common mind as a regulator of customs and popular imagination.

The bell is an integral part of the cultural landscape and soundscape of the Western world.

An exhibition with the twin aims of showing the intangibility of the bell and also how it is a warning “sign” calling on us to preserve its cultural value (playing on the Portuguese word for bell, sino, which comes from the Latin word “signum” meaning “sign”).

The art of knowing how
The “art of casting” bells is an ancient practice. Despite the scarcity of archaeological remains in Portugal, there are some examples that date from the 10th century, especially in the north of the country. By the turn of the 18th century, following changes in techniques and design materials, two main models of bell were developed: the bowl type (shallow and without a clapper, struck from the outside); and the deep type (conical or honeycomb shape with a clapper inside). These bells could be modelled according to three techniques: a horizontal modelling with a fake bell in wax, produced mostly in the medieval period; horizontal modelling with a fake bell in clay, which facilitated the manufacture of larger bells; and vertical bell modelling with clay, used in Portugal from the 14th century. This ancient activity became industrialized, leading to the loss of its artisanal character. The limitations of the internal market and the change of mentality seen after the end of the New State (1933-1974) in Portugal, led to the end of regular production and the extinction of many bell foundries. Therefore, we have witnessed the loss of an existing ethnographic environment based around bells.

Following a long tradition of knowledge from the 3rd millennium BC, the bell first appeared in Europe after 100 BC.

Accounts of the prophylactic properties of the sound of bronze are recorded by Pliny (1st century) and Ovid (1st century AC and AD).

Bell tolling

The bell would be baptized and given a patron whose name might be displayed on it. The characteristics of its sound are defined by the composition of the alloy.

Saint Barbara is the patron saint of metallurgical crafts and is often invoked in bells as a means of driving away thunder.

Each bell has a characteristic musical note determined by the amount of metal, by the shape and size of the bell and the thickness of the bow.

The bells’ decorative motifs are achieved by using movable wax characters which are reproduced on wooden stamps and applied to the outer face of the false bell (clay bell mould).

Religious and apotropaic motifs recur frequently on bells.

From the 17th century, the year of casting normally appears on the bells along with the founder's name.

Manual bell ringing and its automization
Manual bell ringing is in decline due to the progressive mechanization of bells since the 1980s, and the consequent loss of many bell ringers. Thus, it is a fragile intangible heritage whose techniques and practices are disappearing. The bell was once the main regulator of community life. Its sound marked three stages of the day: at dawn, the ringing of the ‘Hail Mary’; at noon, the ‘Angelus’; and in the evening, the 'Trinities'. Bell ringing also signalled liturgical acts, such as Masses, rosaries, processions, weddings, funerals and bells for the departed. Thus, bell ringing awakened individual and collective emotions. Bell ringing was an expression of an individual's social position. Thus, the number of times the bells tolled for a birth, marriage or death varied depending on the amount paid to the bell ringer, Bells were also rung for functional reasons such as invitations to civil events or warnings of the occurrence of fires, shipwrecks, wolf attacks, punishment of thieves and other threats to the community. The remaining bell tolls, which animated the soundscape on specific occasions, have now been virtually forgotten, remaining only in the memory of the elderly.

Keeping the tradition of manual bell ringing alive is to appreciate the historical impact that bells have had on the countryside, both in terms of sound and ethnography.

Because of the regularity of its ringing, the tolling bell provided communities with a sense of belonging to a place.

The chimes differentiated the sex of a child, to report a birth or a baptism. A boy would receive an odd number and a girl an even number.

The bell could be rung in a fixed position or in motion, depending on the ringer’s movements and the type of sound that was intended.

For whom the bells toll
Throughout Portugal, the bell is constantly linked with legends and literature. It may be used to aid a good birth, but may also be found lying buried in a lake or river, chiming in the bowels of the earth to denounce the «enchanted Moors». Attention should also be drawn to the exorcising power of bells against evil entities such as witches, ghosts and demons. According to popular belief, as the death knell sounded, the more the bell rang, the further the Devil fled. It was also believed that the sound of the bell could cure diseases of the ‘head’ and hearing, and it was common for a godfather to ring the bell so that his godchild would not go deaf. Bells have often been a source of pride, becoming an object of envy. Any attempt to steal or destroy them is thus traditionally seen as an affront to the honour and integrity of the community. Documentation from northern Portugal and Galicia shows the term sub-sino (meaning “under the bell”) used as a synonym for parish. Historically, there is indeed a sense of a heritage and legacy to pass on. There is a pressing need to preserve the artisanal skills involved in traditional casting techniques and manual bell ringing. It is up to the present age of industrialized bells to value the intangible significance of these objects so that their meaning is never lost.

Most bells had decorative elements such as bands of tracery.

In addition, religious figures like God the Father, Jesus Christ, Our Lady, and patron saints were common.

In Europe, the Benedictine Rule and the spread of monasticism played a key role in affirming the use of bells, so that they became a defining characteristic of the Christian world, and both the landscape and soundscape of the European continent.

In terms of collective memory, the bell was important as the voice of the community and a sign of its identity.

Bell ringing played a major role in Portuguese culture.

Bells ringing alarm warned of threats to the community, as well as announcing baptisms, weddings and deaths.

Bells and their bell towers are characteristic elements of the landscape and soundscape of Portugal.

From ancestral times the bell has announced good and bad news. It is an object that transcends its material form to become a sign of belonging to a place and a community.

Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto
Credits: Story


Lúcia Maria Cardoso Rosas (FLUP), Maria Leonor Botelho (FLUP), Hugo Barreira (FLUP)

Maria Leonor Botelho (FLUP), Hugo Barreira (FLUP)��

Lúcia Maria Cardoso Rosas (FLUP), Maria Leonor Botelho (FLUP), Hugo Barreira (FLUP)

Maria Leonor Botelho (FLUP), Hugo Barreira (FLUP)

Ana Patrícia Gonçalves, Andréa Diogo, Joana Duarte, Marisa Santos

Ana Patrícia Gonçalves, Andréa Diogo, Joana Isabel Duarte, Marisa Santos��



Ana Patrícia Gonçalves, Andréa Diogo, Joana Isabel Duarte, Marisa Santos��

Direcção Regional da Cultura do Norte (DRCN)
Fundição de Sinos de Braga - Serafim Da Silva Jerónimo & Filhos, Lda.
Paróquia da Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Porto)

ALMEIDA, Carlos Alberto Ferreira de – Carácter mágico do toque das campainhas: apotropaicidade do som. Revista de Etnografia. Volume VI, Tomo 2 (1966). Porto: Museu de Etnografia e História, [s.d].
AUGUSTO, Carlos Alberto - Sons e silêncios da paisagem sonora. Lisboa: Fundação Francisco Manuel dos Santos, 2014.
BELLINO, Albano – Archeologia Christã. Lisboa: Empreza da Historia de Portugal, 1900.
BRAGA, Alberto Vieira – As Vozes dos Sinos na Interpretação Popular e a Indústria Sineira em Guimarães. Porto: Imprensa Portuguesa, 1936.
CORREIA, Mário – Toques de sinos na terra de Miranda. Sendim: Centro de música tradicional Sons da Terra, 2005.
RESENDE, Nuno (Coord.) – O Compasso da Terra. A arte enquanto caminho para Deus. Volume I: Lamego. Lamego: Diocese de Lamego, 2006.
SEBASTIAN, Luís – História da Fundição Sineira em Portugal. Coruche: Câmara Municipal de Coruche, 2008.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google