Washington’s Bells: Miniature Tsar Bell

Within the sumptuous collections housed at Washington’s famed Hillwood Estate, a small desk bell speaks to grand inspiration and storied lineage. The bell, a miniature representation of the Brobdingnagian Tsar Bell in Moscow, is crafted in gilt bronze and was cast in Russia after 1836 as a single piece. An engraving indicates the location of the original’s broken fragment. 

Side view of the miniature Tsar Bell detailing the location of the original’s fragmented piece.

The gilt bronze bell (measuring 15.2 × 10.2cm) is surmounted with a Georgian cross with rays and is perched on a base of malachite mosaic over slate (measuring 2.9 × 16.5 × 14.3cm). The bell mirrors the original with decorations of the Tsar and Empress. It came into the estate’s collection as a gift of Madame Augusto Rosso in 1968 and is currently on view in the Dacha as part of the Natural Beauties: Exquisite Works of Minerals and Gems exhibition.

The original legend begins.

Bellmaking in Russia dates to the 10th century, but wasn’t initially connected with the Russian Orthodox Church. Instead, bells played a secular role in daily life, announcing important events in the community, marking significant ceremonies, raising alarm, and calling people together.

One of the largest early Russian bells, completed in 1600, was the first Tsar Bell. It weighed an impressive 20 tons, which didn’t help much a few decades later when fire ravaged the Kremlin. The bell, housed in the original wooden Ivan the Great Bell Tower, shattered into pieces when the structure succumbed to flames and crashed to the ground. 

The Muscovites were undeterred, casting a second Tsar Bell in 1655 using the recovered remnants of the first – while adding much more molten bronze. The replacement bell weighed 110 tons, but alas, it too was destroyed by fire a half century later. 

The third time’s a charm.

Beleaguered but not broken in spirit, a third bell was attempted in 1733. At the direction of Empress Anna Ivanovna, niece of Peter the Great, a bell was commissioned that would be the largest the world had ever seen. While a moulding pit was being dug at Ivanovskaya Square to the east of the base of the restored Ivan the Great Bell Tower (with reinforced walls to withstand the intensity of molten metal), a messenger was dispatched to Paris to solicit the technical help of master craftsmen. The emissary, the son of Field Marshal Münnich, was reportedly laughed at when he conveyed the bell’s unprecedented size. He returned to Russia alone.

The project was then awarded to local bellfounder Ivan Motorin and his son Mikhail. They set to work, again using pieces from the previous bell with the addition of 1,157 lbs. of silver, 159 lbs. of gold, and much, much more bronze. Preparations took a year and a half, with casting finally beginning in late November 1734. It was unsuccessful – and then Ivan Motorin died.

Mikhail pushed forward in his father’s absence and the second attempt, a year later, was a success. Carvers were invited from St. Petersburg to complete the relief ornamentation, which took place through 1737 while the bell was cooling above the casting pit. Then came another fire.

Detail of the bell's relief ornamentation and the figure of Empress Anna Ivanovna. The decorations across the bell’s exterior portray baroque angels, native flora, saints, inscriptions, and nearly life-size depictions of Tsar Alexei and Empress Anna.

Before the final ornamentation was complete, a fire swept through the Kremlin in May 1737 and reached the temporary wooden structure built around the bell. Fearing the worst, guards heaved cold water onto the conflagration. The dramatic difference in temperatures caused 11 cracks to ripple through the casting and an 11-ton section fragmented from the rest. The wooden supports gave way and the damaged bell sunk back into the casting pit. It remained there for almost a century, with several futile attempts to lift it. 

Even Napoleon considered marching the bell back to Paris as a trophy from his conquest of Moscow in 1812, but was baffled by its sheer scale. At 20.1 feet tall, 22 feet in diameter, and a thickness of up to 2 feet, the bell is estimated to weigh between 202 and 220 tons.

A bell rises, but doesn’t ring.

Finally, in the summer of 1836, the bell was brought to light (in the interim, Tsar Alexander I had ordered a ladder be built down to the bell, so that the curious could be satiated with a look). French architect Auguste de Montferrand, who had built St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, lifted the bell and placed it on a purpose-built sandstone pedestal near the Kremlin Wall at the base of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower.

The Tsar Bell as seen today at the base of the Ivan the Great Bell Tower with sightseers gathered around. Together with the Tsar Cannon, it has become a monumental fixture of the Kremlin grounds.

The 11-ton broken slab was celebrated with an honor of its own. Rather than be welded back to the original, it is left leaning against the main – a reflection of its uneasy road to existence.

A view from below shows the original bronze clapper reclining underneath the bell within the sandstone surround.

The Tsar Bell is also sometimes called the Royal Bell, Tsarsky Kolokol, or Tsar Kolokol III. For a time, the bell served as a small chapel and, though it has never been suspended or rung, legend holds that the bell will be miraculously repaired to ring out on Judgment Day. So that you don't have to wait until then, a team at UC Berkeley, together with researchers at Stanford and the University of Michigan, worked together to digitally create the sound they believed the bell would make.

 

Bells at Hillwood

This article is part of a curated series on bells at Hillwood Estate. Continue exploring:

The National Bell Festival would like to extend our gratitude to Hillwood Estate and Dr. Wilfried Zeisler, Chief Curator, for providing us this special glimpse at Marjorie Merriweather Post’s collection.