Thursday, July 07, 2011

Isa's Bell*

I don't often write about my family - not because they were/are, god knows, less than colourful but just I'm not sure that the rest of the world would find the antics of my nearest and dearest all that entertaining. Like most families they were/are a healthy or unhealthy mix of the good, the bad, the criminal, the insane, the interesting and the just plain boring.

However, and if ever a paragraph begged a "however" that would be the preceding one, our recent packing up of things brought to light the facts behind a little family treasure of my mother's.  My mother immigrated to Canada from Belfast in 1919 at the age of 17, under circumstances that I have spoken of to friends but never had the nerve to put in writing - though that may change one day.  She made several trips back the first being to announce to her family that she was getting married.  That would have been around 1924 if my calculations are right.  As she was leaving Ireland to return to Canada and wedding bells someone gave her a bell as a souvenir:  a small brass dinner bell with an enamel shield on it bearing a shamrock and Ireland.  Or at least she always thought it was a dinner bell.  I remember that bell being in our china cabinet as a child and being allowed to use it if I was in bed sick and needed anything.  Fortunately I was the sort that always preferred to be left alone on my death bed so its seldom peeled though I did use it to great dramatic effect when I staged Act 3 of Tosca on my cut-out theatre.  That is until my mother heard it and returned it to the china cabinet with the warning that it wasn't a plaything.

Now a bit of background is required to fully appreciate the irony of our recent discovery on a bit of the history of that little brass bell.  My mother was born in 1902 in Ireland before the bloody and fractious battles that eventually led to the creation of the Irish Free State and eventual separation into the sovereign country of Ireland and Northern Ireland (Ulster).  It was a country divide by history, politics, loyalties, wealth, and, most violently, religion.  My mother's family were Ulster Irish, Protestant, merchant-class, pro-British and fiercely Orange.  I won't go into the whole Orange Lodge thing here but let us just say that tolerance was not the watchword of that organization or society in general on either side of the fence.  My mother was brought up to both fear and mistrust people who "kicked with the left foot".   Much of that fear and mistrust was to soften as she grew older but there were always flashes of the old prejudices until the day she died.  Again a reminder that it was a different time and a different place - though sadly recent events have indicated that old enmities are still strong.

But enough of the history lesson; lets get back to her "dinner" bell.  The small enamel shield had fallen off - the 90 year old glue had finally given up - and Laurent decided that he would reattach it before we packed it up.  I guess I had never really looked at it closely - it was always just there but he took a close look at the inscriptions on it and was a bit puzzled.  Why was the writing in Latin?  What were those figures meant to represent?   The full inscription reads: Leo X Aqvila X Pelicanvs X Agnvs. My first thought was to connect "Leo X Aqvila" - Pope Leo X and the town of Aquila.  But what would a 15th century Medici Pope and a town in the Abruzzio have to do with each other or Ireland for that matter?

Nothing it would seem.  A search on the internet quickly revealed one of life's little ironies.  What we had on hand was nothing more than a late Victorian Sanctuary Bell.  A small brass bell that had been rung during the Sanctus and at the Elevation of the Host by some be-brogued youngster in a white cotta when his local priest celebrated mass.

Leo - the Lion:  The king of the beasts therefore the kingly nature of Christ; that and the old belief that a lion cub died at birth and after three days the male lion brought it
back to life by licking and breathing on it.  That is probably self-explanatory.

Aquila - the Eagle:  The symbolism there could be referring to the eagle of
St John the Evangelist or equally to the majestic bird ascending to the heavens
on strong wings.

Agnus - the Lamb:  the most common, and best known symbol, of the Eucharist
is the lamb of God.  Based on the tradition of offering a lamb
as sacrifice ergo Christ the sacrificial lamb. 

Pelicanus - the Pelican:  It was an ancient belief that the pelican fed it young by
tearing flesh from its own breast and feeding them with its blood.
A symbol then of the blood of Christ?
What my mother proudly showed in our Protestant household as a souvenir of Ireland and was used to call us - jokingly I might add as our family dinners were never that elaborate - on special occasions to dinner or to a sick room was a piece of religious hardware from a Roman Catholic church somewhere in pre-partition Ireland.

*I'm afraid this is a bad case of word play which only a few members of my family would get but I couldn't help myself. My mother's name was Isabella but her little brother Jimmy called her "Isa" and that stuck with the family as nicknames often do.  And an added layer of gentle irony there is one for sale on e- Bay and the seller???  Isabella's Discount Store.  The Gods laugh!

06 lulgio - San Claudio e Sant'Edda

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Debra She Who Seeks said...

This sounds like an early example of recycling! I'm sure your mother would have been mortified by the bell's Catlicker origins.

Anonymous said...

Bet the Ireland plaque was added after it's use as a church bell. (It looks like a handle for the altar boy to grip and the plaque would have made it difficult for him.) What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for searching on this
little bell, I have one the same
and I always wanted to know what represent those symbols. Good job


Anonymous said...

My aunt gave me some brass items and this bell was one of them years ago.After reading your comments and looking at your bell I now know what is represents and how it was used.--Thanks

Anonymous said...

Ive got a bell like that, it was left in the house whats it value

Willym said...

Sorry I really don't have much of an idea - for me it's the family value. You might want to check on e-bay or one of the other sites. I can't imagine it would be much though.

ARECOM said...

I bought a beautiful old bell at auction. Thank you for your description. Greetings from Poland.

Anonymous said...

Agnus x Pelicanus and Leo x Aquila refer to the ancient Roman celestial calendar with important astronomical constellation events like equinoxes. The dinner bell has Pelicans representing fish, Leo meat, Aquila game and Agnus the sacraficial lamb. I think Christianity lost the meaning in its history.

Michael B. said...

I have a bell very similar to this one, and it includes the same four creatures and Latin inscriptions. It belonged to my grandmother, and she had it since at least I was a very small child (I'm 72 at this writing). Unfortunately, I never thought to ask her where or when she got it. It does, however, have "France" engraved on the loop-shaped handle. My step-grandfather may have picked it up in France as he traveled from present-day Ukraine to the Netherlands in 1912, from where sailed for America. I've always been curious about this and finally decided to do a search. Thank you for posting this background information; it never occurred to me that this might have been a Sanctus bell.