Tallinn has given Europe only one artist whose work is exhibited in such art museums as the Washington Metropolitan, the Prado, the London National Gallery, the Wien Kunsthistorische Galerie, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and museums in Berlin, Budapest, Hague, Copenhagen and Paris. The name of Michel Sittow is not known to everyone, but in professional circles he is considered to be one of the best portrait painters of the Dutch School at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries.
Michel Sittow (1469-1525) stood at the border of the Gothic and the Renaissance. He was born in Tallinn and received his first instruction in art from his artist father. He then moved on to Brugge, probably to the studio of Hans Memling. The year 1490 witnessed the start of his meteoric rise as a highly sought-after court artist in Spain and Flanders. Master Michel's favourites were half-figure portraits and pictures of the Madonna. He used to give saints and the Virgin Mary the features of his clients. He painted the Spanish Queen Isabella, the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Handsome, Margarete of Austria, the King of Denmark Christian II and other sovereigns. The precision and fineness of his brushwork, the bright colouring and the material qualities of his subjects, place Master Michel close to the top of Renaissance art.
In 1506 Michel Sittow returned to Tallinn, became a citizen of the town and, towards the end of his life, ascended to the position of the head of the St Canute Guild. Unfortunately, his Tallinn period work has been sold abroad or destroyed. Only four figures of saints on the altar of the Passion of Christ in St Nicholas church are believed to be his work. A figure of St George and a wooden relief of St Andrew in Tallinn are allegedly the works of Sittow. The tombstone of the Tallinn Town Doctor Johannes Balliv (1520) in St Nicholas Church was also probably made according to Master Michel's design.
Michel Sittow participated in the revolutionary reformational events in Tallinn in 1524 which broke the spine of Catholicism and medieval church art. The pillaging of pictures in churches and monasteries occurred at the same time.
Nevertheless, the secularisation of art, self-centered attitudes, and the ousting of Gothic ornaments did not nevertheless occur abruptly.
The economic boom during the Reformation in Old Livonia (today's Estonia and Northern Latvia) produced a flurry of construction. Numerous ancient buildings were modernised according to the needs of developing military technology, the altered fashion and religious beliefs. The importance of sacral art diminished drastically, and the abandoned saints were replaced by allegorical virtues and characters from classical mythology.
The fortress architecture was held in high esteem. The bastille type solid and low artillery towers, and earthworks against cannons with increased gunpower, were erected in front of the old walls of towns and fortresses.
The difficulties in transition from Gothic to Renaissance can be clearly seen in the case of the Tallinn sculptor of The Fall. That particular sculptor had produced three monumental relief slabs depicting the scene of The Fall. These have well-modelled faces and a tree, but the artist had considerable difficulties in producing the anatomically correct human naked bodies. He had obviously been used to painting well buttoned-up ascetic gothic saints and was not able to adapt to the demands of the new taste.
Post-Reformation sculpture exhibits a lot of clumsiness in the style of figure and the old-fashioned jointing of architectonics. The façades of the Tallinn houses bore Gothic-like geometrical framing until the beginning of the 17th century. The modern Renaissance shields in old framings now carried family symbols and coats-of-arms and even human figures. The level of execution varies from naive popular art to an art worthy of any royal court.
The peaceful development was interrupted by the assault of the Moscow grand duchy against territories of the decrepit Livonian order in 1558. This was the start of the 25 year-long Livonian War which involved also Sweden, Poland and Denmark. Before being divided between the three states mentioned above, Old Livonia was thoroughly ravaged in the war. Creative activities ceased and the larger part of ancient architectural and art heritage was destroyed by fire. The only town left unconquered and unpillaged was Tallinn due to its extraordinarily strong fortifications. Therefore a remarkable part of the earlier art heritage has survived intact, unlike in other regions of Estonia where it was destroyed in the Livonian War or in the Swedish-Polish wars which soon followed (1600-29).
In the late 16th century, Tallinn showed the first signs of recovering from the Livonian War. In 1589 the town got a new master builder with special interest in sculpture. His name was Arent Passer and he came from the Hague. His most important work of sculpture, completed in 1595, was the tombstone of Pontus de la Gardie, the Swedish army commander of French extraction and his wife Sophia Gyllenhielma. The monument was made by order of King Johan III, because Pontus chased the army of Ivan the Terrible out of Estonia. And besides, Sophia was the King's own illegitimate daughter. Arent Passer carved a sarcophagus out of limestone. There are high relief figures of the spouses on the cover and their coats-of-arms on the front side, together with figures of Death with lowered torches and a scene of the siege of Narva which was the height of de la Gardie's military career. Above the sarcophagus in the Tallinn Cathedral, there is an epitaph on the wall depicting the resurrection of Christ and some allegorical figures. In architectural design, Arent Passer has derived inspiration from the mannerism of the Netherlands; in his sculptures one can detect the influence of Jean Goujon.
In a simplified form, Arent Passer repeated the de la Gardie tombstone in Turku Cathedral in the tombstone of the Swedish general Evert Horn (1616). The Horns, Uexküll, Tiesenhausens and other nobility also had Passer design impressive tombstones for their families, as well as figural epitaphs in the Tallinn cathedral and other churches in Estonia and Finland. The Kuressaare Museum holds the stone altar reliefs of the Kärla church which were made in Passer's workshop; the Estonian Maritime Museum has reliefs with the Evangelists from St.Michael's monastery; and there is a Passer epitaph above the Tallinn Holy Ghost Church portal. Numerous houses of the nobility and the burgers can boast window pillars, reliefs and chimney-stones from the Passer workshop. They all have a similar treatment of ornaments: roll-edged cartouches, festoons and mascharoni, samples of which can be found in the work of Vredeman de Vries and Cornelis Floris.
The best example of Passer's mannerist work that can be seen in Tallinn's streets, is the façade of the Blackhead Brotherhood's house (1597). Passer decorated the earlier Gothic gabled houses with numerous flat reliefs, a showy portal and a gable with ornamental volute. Although Passer was inspired by the spirit of the Renaissance, he maintained the old façade's vertical emphasis and asymmetry. Thus Passer laid the foundations for the scenic architecture in Tallinn. Its ideas have been consistently followed in rebuilding the Hansa period houses: a house with strong supporting walls was not destroyed in the process of modernisation; instead the system of openings and decor on the façade were altered, providing the ancient building with a modern frontal - a scenery.
Passer's descendants, his son Dionysius and other disciples imitated the master's style in ever more provincial manner; moving smoothly from late Renaissance form and ornamentation to dynamic Baroque.
In the early 17th century, many of the churches pillaged in wars got new inventory, altars and pulpits, pews and communion chalices, etc. Among the masters of sacral art, mention should be made of such prominent wood carvers as Berent Geistmann and Tobias Heintze whose work has partly survived even today. The painters of that period are mostly only known through records, because the few surviving altar paintings and painted epitaphs are not attributable. As for orientation in art, it may be said that even during Swedish rule, Estonia was still strongly influenced by the North German regions and the Netherlands, through their relatively sober, Palladian burgher architecture, through their portrait painters who valued reality and through the silver forgings after the fashion of the Hansa period.
A foreign visitor on a short visit in Estonia and in search of the traces of Renaissance, should first go to the Tallinn Cathedral, St Nicholas Church, Holy Ghost Church, the building of the Blackhead Brotherhood and the display of ancient ashlars in the cloisters of St Catherine's Monastery. There the visitor can get an inkling that, despite the wars, the era of Dürer, Holbein and Raffael has not vanished in Estonia.