Messina Cathedral Bell Tower

Messina Cathedral Bell Tower

The Bell Tower (Campanile) of Messina Cathedral is certainly the city’s most interesting landmark. The mechanisms that make up the astronomical clock go into action every day at noon while the notes of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria resound across the square. It was made by the Ungerer company of Strasbourg in 1933. The Bell Tower’s mechanical and astronomical clock system is generally recognised as the largest and most complex in the world.

History of Messina Cathedral’s Bell Tower

Messina Cathedral‘s bell tower was first built during the Norman era. After being partially damaged by an earthquake in 1783, the Senate of Messina decided to shorten it and cover it with a dome. In 1863, however, this bell tower was pulled down because it was unsafe. Its current appearance dates back to the reconstruction carried out after it was destroyed yet again, this time by the 1908 earthquake. In 1933, the astronomical clock and all the mechanisms that go into action every day at noon were added to the current bell tower. This was done by the Ungerer company of Strasbourg.

The mechanisms of the mechanical clock in Messina Cathedral’s bell tower

The mechanisms of the Bell Tower Clock are activated every day at noon. The first to be activated is the rooster, who crows three times, followed by the lion, who then roars three times. From this moment on, to the notes of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, the scenes of the “Ambassadors and the Madonna della lettera” and the “Sanctuario di Montalto” also begin to unfold.

The Lion

On top of the bell tower stands a 4-metre high golden statue of a lion. It is a symbol of the city’s, and its inhabitants’, strength in the fight against the Angevins during the 1282 War of the Vespers. The lion is the first of the mechanisms to be activated at midday. The statue waves the flagpole bearing the crusader banner of Messina three times while moving its head and tail and roaring. 

The Rooster

On the lower level, there is a statue of a rooster sandwiched between the two statues of Dina and Clarenza. The rooster is 2.20 metres high and is the second mechanism to be activated, at which point it flaps its wings three times, lifts its head and crows “cock-a-doodle-doo”. The rooster is a symbol of intelligence and industriousness but also of the awakening of the city.

Dina and Clarenza

On either side of the rooster statue, there are two 3-metre high female statues that mark the hours and quarters by ringing bells. They are Dina and Clarenza, two of Messina’s heroines who, according to legend, saved the city during the first War of the Vespers in 1282. It is said that, on the night of 8 August, there was an attempted attack on the city of Messina by Angevin troops. The two women were on guard duty and were able to help the city thwart the attack. Dina by throwing stones at the enemy soldiers and Clarenza by ringing the bells of the cathedral bell tower to wake up the whole town.

The Madonna della lettera and the Ambassadors

Campanile del Duomo di Messina: la Madonna della Lettera e gli ambasciatori

On the lower part, there is a depiction of the meeting between the Messina ambassadors and Mary of Nazareth. The statues of the ambassadors bow in turn before the Madonna, who holds the letter of blessing in one hand. According to tradition, the Apostle Paul arrived in Messina in 42 AD and began the work of converting the local population to Christianity. When he returned to Palestine, a delegation from Messina wanted to accompany Paul on his journey, so that they could meet the Virgin Mary and ask for a blessing for their city. The people of Messina were able to meet the Virgin on 3 June 42 AD. In gratitude, Mary gave them a letter of blessing, written in Hebrew and bound with a lock of her hair.

The biblical scenes

On the next level, four biblical scenes are represented. The statues that can be seen on the façade vary according to the time of year and, in particular, according to the liturgical calendar. From Christmas to Epiphany, the scene is that of the adoration of the shepherds. When the mechanism is activated, the shepherds parade bowing before the baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St Joseph. The Adoration of the Magi is the scene visible in the period from Epiphany to Easter. In this case, it is the Magi, each accompanied by a valet, who bow before the Child, held in Mary’s arms. From Easter to Pentecost we move on to the “Resurrection of Jesus”. Thus, we see the statue of Jesus emerging from his tomb watched by two stunned soldiers. Finally, in the period from Pentecost to Christmas, the moment represented is that of the “Descent of the Holy Spirit”. In this scene, the twelve apostles are gathered around the Virgin Mary in the upper room. A dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, flies above them, while flames appear on the heads of the apostles with their arms raised high.

Founding of the Church of Montalto

On the next level down, we find a reference to another town legend related to the construction of a church. Apparently, in 1294, the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to a monk named Nicholas with a specific request. The next day, he was to gather the city authorities on the Colle della Caperrina (Caperrina Hill). At midday, a dove is said to have circled the perimeter around which a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was to be built. The mechanisms of the Astronomical Clock re-enact this story every day at midday. As a dove takes flight, the statue of the Church of Montalto slowly emerges. The building was built in 1294 and was destroyed in the 1908 earthquake. Today, the Santuario di Montalto stands on that site.

Campanile del Duomo di Messina, il carosello della vita

On the penultimate level is the stages of life carousel. Four life-size statues represent different periods: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Every quarter of an hour, the statues of a child, a young man, a warrior and an old man move in procession before death. This is represented by a skeleton with a scythe in its hand which moves as they pass.

The final level depicts the days of the week personified by seven Roman gods. Each of them is driving a chariot pulled by different animals. For Monday, there is Diana, goddess of the hunt, pulled by a deer. For Tuesday, there is the god of war, Mars, on a chariot pulled by a horse. Mercury is for Wednesday, and the animal attached to his chariot is a panther. Jupiter, the father of the gods, is for Thursday and a mythological “chimaera” pulls his chariot. Venus, the goddess of beauty, is for Friday, driving a chariot with a dove attached. Saturn is for Saturday, and his chariot also sports a chimaera. Finally, for Sunday, there is Apollo, whose chariot is equipped with a horse.

The astronomical clock on Messina Cathedral’s Bell Tower

Campanile del Duomo di Messina: i meccanismi astronomici

The bell tower’s side façade contains an astronomical clock. Starting from the top, a half-gold, half-black sphere marks the different phases of the moon. On the lower level, there is a planetarium consisting of a large ring depicting the solar system and the figures of the zodiac. Finally, below the planetarium, is the large perpetual calendar disc. At the exact centre is a sun and around it, in concentric circles, the days and months of the year are indicated. On the left, the statue of an angel indicates, with an arrow, the current date and year, which is automatically updated at midnight.

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