Architectural Elements: Bell Tower, Bell-Gable & Belfry

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson explores architectural elements related to church design and church bells. Within it, you'll learn to differentiate between a bell tower, a bell-gable, and a belfry with descriptions and visual examples.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Our culture abounds with references to church bells and the structures housing them, from ''bats in the belfry'' to asking, ''Do I hear wedding bells?'' These phrases and symbols appear time and again. However, do many of us really know what these phrases are referring to? How well do we know the architecture related to church bells? Let's take a look at three features: the bell tower, the bell-gable, and the belfry. Two of these should be somewhat familiar to you already, though bell-gable may be a bit of a mystery.

Bell Tower

A bell tower usually sits atop a church, rising upward from its roof. Its purpose is to house one or more bells along with the framework for the bells and their ringing equipment. To this day, no uniform design exists for the construction of a bell tower except for its purpose in housing bells.

A similar term with slightly more specificity is a bell turret, which usually involves a spire or other ornamental feature above the bell chamber, as one might see on a long church steeple. Most often, it has eight sloping sides. Within a bell turret, and in most bell towers, the lower portion contains a staircase along the wall that leads up to the bell. The Italian campanile is also related to bell towers and bell turrets, but it refers to free-standing structures.

Giotto bell-tower from Palazzo Vecchio
Bell Tower

By the mid-1600s, many churches had bell towers of some form. They were used to call parishioners to church service, keep time, and to signal significant news. The towers and their bells also rang to announce the passing of someone in the community, ringing nine times for a deceased man, six times for a woman, and three times for a child, followed by a ring for each year of their age. During times of plague, such as in 1665, the bells rang continuously for days, even into weeks.

Bell turret at Lehigh Valley Railroad Station in Allentown Pennsylvania
Bell Turret

Bell-Gable

You are less likely to hear the term bell-gable, but most likely you have actually seen them, especially in the American Southwest. First, let's explain a gable. This is an upward extension of a wall as a crowning for one end of a building. These decorative elements can be used for many purposes, but in some churches they replace bell towers. The bell-gable is a gable with a portion cut out to hang one or more bells. Have you seen these while traveling or maybe in a film?

Bell-gable
Bell Gable

At the top of the cutout opening, the bell is attached to the frame and turning, or ringing, apparatus. The rope used to ring the bell often passes through an opening in the roof or cavity in the wall so it can be rung from inside the church. On a few occasions, you may see a set up with the rope hanging down, exterior to the church walls. This requires someone to ring the bell from the ground while standing outdoors, not an ideal situation in extreme heat or areas prone to excessive rain and storms.

Belfry

While this term appears in common euphemisms, knowing specifically what a belfry is appears less commonly. Part of this stems from the fact that it is often used for two different architectural features, one correctly and the other less so. In the sense that a belfry is used in place of a bell tower, its application is not exactly correct. However, it is publicly accepted because of how widespread its use has become. A belfry most specifically refers to the part of a bell tower that actually holds a bell or several bells. Confusing things further, the term was also used at one point in history to refer to the framework holding the bells in place.

Bell Chamber of a Belfry
Belfry

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