The Bell of Hieromonk Theodosios
The Bell of Hieromonk Theodosios

By Alex Rodriguez Suarez | Independent Scholar


The bell of Hieromonk Theodosios is a bronze artifact cast in 1270. It was found, together with another 13th-century bell, in the ruins of the church of St. Nicholas, Melnik (Bulgaria), in 2002. Today, it is on display in the National History Museum, Sofia (inventory number: 55902).

Its height measures 57 cm and its diameter is 42 cm. The bell does not display any decoration, and its crown, the top section designed to hang it, is made of a central ring to which two handles are attached. It is missing the clapper. The artifact was mainly employed to announce the religious service.


Translation: Lord, help your servant Theodosios, Hieromonk, who renewed this bell of the Chief Commander Michael of Melnik, during the reign of Michael Palaiologos and New Constantine, in the month of March, indiction 13, year 6778.

Theodosios is surely the monastic name of Theodore Komnenos Kantakouzenos, who is mentioned in two undated documents preserved in Vatopedi Monastery. He had been Grand Droungarios (of the Watch) and was buried in the monastery of the Virgin Spelaiotissa, Melnik. The use of the verb renew implies that the bell was recast after a previous artifact had broken. It has been suggested that the bell was donated to a monastery dedicated to St. Charalambos and the Archangels in Melnik and was later transferred to the church of St. Nicholas. However, the dedication might have been inspired by the presence of the future Michael VIII (r. 1259–83), who was governor of Melnik and Serres. In fact, when Michael became emperor he promoted the cult of the Archangel Michael.


Very few bells produced before the Ottoman period have been preserved in the Balkans. Most were looted and melted down during the Ottoman conquest. The bell of Hieromonk Theodosios is so far the only such artifact clearly attributed to a Byzantine context. Two more bells with Greek inscriptions have survived. One, also found in Melnik, was donated by a member of the Bulgarian royal family during the first half of the 13th century. The other was given by a woman named Helen to an unknown church in 1458/59, after the Ottoman conquest of Byzantium.

The adoption of bell ringing by the Byzantine Church, a process that started slowly in the 12th century, gained momentum in the 13th, when large swathes of the Byzantine territory were conquered by the armies of the Fourth Crusade and the Latin Empire of Constantinople was established. The bell of Hieromonk Theodosios confirms what written sources, for instance, such as the writings of George Pachymeres (1242–ca. 1310) and Patriarch John XI Bekkos (1275–82), report: The Byzantines had embraced the pealing of bells to call the faithful to mass and regulate the everyday life of monastic communities. Nevertheless, the traditional instrument of the Byzantines, the semantron, usually an elongated piece of wood that was struck with a wooden mallet, continued to be employed.

As a result, the religious soundscape of the Late Byzantine period was eclectic; it was composed of the sounds of church bells and semantra. The use of bells was accompanied by the construction of bell towers, an architectural element that became common in the Palaiologan period. Thus, the adoption of bell ringing had a noteworthy impact on both the Byzantine soundscape and religious architecture.

The inscription on the bell shows details characteristic of Byzantine dedicatory inscriptions. For example, the donor asks the Lord to help his servant, that is, Theodosios. The year is calculated since the creation of the world and the date includes the indiction. These elements indicate that, while church bells could be considered a Latin import, the artifacts were inscribed following the Byzantine tradition.

The adoption of bell ringing provided the Byzantines – in this occasion, a monk – with further opportunities for artistic and religious patronage, even though Theodosios surely funded the recast of an already existing bell. On the other hand, the inscription does not include the name of the bell master. Actually, so far no Byzantine bell founder is known through his/her signature.

Because of the language of the inscription the bell has recently been attributed to a Byzantine craftsman. Nonetheless, the artifact was cast with a type of crown found in earlier Western bells. This feature does not necessarily prove that the artifact was cast by a Western master, but it could suggest that local bell founders had copied Western models or had been trained by Westerners. Certainly, the adoption of bell ringing by the Orthodox communities of the Balkans resulted in the emergence of a local production of bells; however, the available information regarding this manufacture in the Byzantine Empire is currently scant.

Written and material evidence demonstrates that several bell founders – Pribislav Radosalić, Radoje Mališić, a certain Benedeto, and Giovanni Battista of Rab – were active in Ragusa/Dubrovnik between the 14th and 16th centuries. The latter also cast cannons. Their presence seems to have turned the city into the most important bell casting center in the Balkans. Bell founders based there may have traveled inland to cast artifacts in situ.

By contrast, Serbian and Byzantine monasteries also employed bells cast in Venice. This suggests that local bell founders did not cover the demand from churches and monasteries, and so production was sought in different areas. Alternatively, it might simply show that bells cast in Venice were better, cheaper, or easier to obtain.

The Ottoman conquest prohibited the ringing of bells and so any local production of bells eventually faded. Bell casting was only available in vassal states of the Ottoman Empire such as the Republic of Ragusa and the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Venetian bells continued to be imported, for instance, to Mount Athos, one of the few privileged locations allowed to use bells during the post-Byzantine period.

Further Reading

Gerasimova, Vasilka. “Dve kambani ot Melnik s nadpisi ot XIII v.” (Two Bells From Melnik With Inscriptions From the 13th Century), Arheologiya 43, no. 3 (2003): 42–49.

This article presented the two bells from Melnik after they were discovered in 2002. It provides details, such as measurements and inscriptions, and pictures of the two artifacts.

Sharankov, Nicolay. “Notes on Ancient and Medieval Latin and Greek Inscriptions From Bulgaria.” Archaeologia Bulgarica 13 (2009): 47–61.

The author reevaluates the inscriptions on the two bells found in Melnik and corrects the errors in the publication by Gerasimova.

Nesheva, Violeta. Melnik: Bogozidaniyt grad (Melnik: God-Masoned Town). Sofia: Ivray, 2008.

This study looks at the architecture and material culture of Melnik. The author argues that Hieromonk Theodosios was the monastic name of Theodore Komnenos Kantakouzenos, who is mentioned in Athonite manuscripts.

Miljković, Bojan. “Semantra and Bells in Byzantium.” Zbornik Radova Vizantološkog Instituta 55 (2018): 271–303.

The work focuses on the use of semantra and bells in the Byzantine Empire. The bell of Hieromonk Theodosios is attributed to a Byzantine craftsman.

Rodriguez Suarez, Alex. “Bells and Bell Ringing in Medieval Serbia and Bulgaria.” Études balkaniques 57, no. 3 (2021): 453–504.

This publication analyses eleven medieval bells preserved in Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia/Kosovo.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.

Alex Rodriguez Suarez, "The Bell of Hieromonk Theodosios," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,