In 1730, Dom Joao V astounded workers in a bell foundry in Antwerp when he ordered an astonishing 120 bells – each weighing as much as nine tons, for what he planned would be the grandest palace in the world, Mafra , north of Lisbon

Dom João V was boastful when he made the claim about the status of his palace, and it is true that his unprecedented order for 120 bells was queried. No one had ever placed such an enormous order before and to transport so many bells by horse and cart for a journey of more than 2,000 kilometers was to be an achievement in itself. But to this day the carillons at Mafra constitute the largest ensemble of bells in the world. And what is more, they continue to chime.

Contained in two enormous bell towers, each one 50 metres high, they flank the imposing façade of the palace. The building incorporates a basilica, a Franciscan monastery, several chapels, monks’ cells, banqueting halls, a library, as well as apartments for the king, queen and the royal court. There is nowhere quite like it in the rest of Portugal, and the entire complex is open to the public.

Before venturing inside, the best place to hear Mafra’s bells is on the praça before the main façade. The experience is unique. Between sunrise and sunset the carillon strikes on the hour, half hour and quarter hour.

Each of the two bell towers contains two systems that operate simultaneously. The first is a mechanical system driven by the clock. It moves bell hammers which strike colossal bronze cylinders to produce a melody. The second system is manual, relying upon a carillonneur to tap a keyboard with their hands and feet. Forming part of the Mafra experience the bell towers and the palace were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2019.

Other bell towers with carillons that attempt to rival Mafra’s are the Clerigo Church in Porto and Fatima’s Basilica of our Lady. In the Algarve it is possible to climb 50 steps inside the bell tower of Faro’s Cathedral. Visitors who are at the top when the clock strikes the hour do not forget the experience!

Bell ringing times in the village of Turquel, district of Alcobaça, was finally resolved last year when the church authorities agreed to silence the church bells between 22:00 and 08:00. Many locals objected to this break with tradition citing other villages where church clocks toll more frequently throughout the entire night. Once at 15 minutes after the hour, twice on the half hour and thrice every 45 minutes past the hour. For good measure some also peal at sunrise and sunset.

In the case of funerals, many church bells hold firmly to tradition chiming the death knell six times for a woman and nine times for a man. This is followed by one chime for each year of the deceased person’s life.

Making such announcements is an important role but of equal value are the rapid and continuous chimes that invite the faithful to attend mass. Some larger churches are able to play entire musical melodies for celebrations such as Easter, weddings and baptisms.

Traditionalists might object when they discover that in some cases the sound of real bells has been replaced by recordings and PA systems. Heading for the Complaints Book they will find that like the bells it too has gone electronic. Time does not stand still.

Words – Carolyn Kain

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