Our heritage

Gothic art in Estonia


Estonia with its territory of 45 215 square kilometres is a little bit bigger than Denmark, but its population density is four times less and its population is only 1.5 million. As a result, Estonian nature is relatively unspoilt by human activities. At the same time, the varied political history of the country has been closely connected with near and far neighbours around the Baltic Sea throughout the centuries and that has had a strong impact on the spiritual and material cultural inheritance of the Estonians, facilitating, among other things, extensive reconstruction work. It is amazing how many historically significant buildings one can find in Estonia.

The Great Coast Gate,
Pikk street and
Oleviste (St Olav's) Church beyond

(zoom: 212K

During medieval times, four cities on the Estonian territory belonged to the Hanseatic League of German trading towns: Tallinn, Tartu, Pärnu and Viljandi. In addition to these there are other towns of medieval origin, such as Narva, Rakvere, Paide, Haapsalu and Kuressaare. Except for Rakvere and Kuressaare, all of these had a town wall and other opportune fortifications. In contrast to Finland where there are only 20 medieval strongholds or ruins of strongholds, in Estonia there are about a hundred medieval strongholds, fortified manor houses and abbeys. Numerous wars, usually several in a century, failed to demolish the old buildings. Parish churches and manor houses with fundamental stone walls got new roofs and furnishings after war destruction, but the fortifications have mainly become picturesque ruins. As Estonia is rich in natural stone, such as limestone and granite, the medieval buildings were erected so soundly that even the ruins testify to the strength of the former fortifications.

Currently, sights of interest in Estonia include numerous strongholds and ruins of strongholds that were erected by the Danes and the Livonian Order, a subsidiary of the German Order. The Hermann Fortress, towering over the Narva River and standing in opposition to the Ivangorod Fortress on the other bank of the river erected by the Russians, embodies the opposition of the East and the West of that time more visually than the fortresses in any other part of Europe. In addition, the partially standing Order strongholds of Tallinn, Rakvere, Põltsamaa, Paide and Viljandi with their towers and scraggy walls, bearing war wounds, come to mind.

The portal of Karja church, 14th century

Considering the smallness of the country, in Estonia there is a relatively large number of parish churches (over a hundred &endash; erected in the Middle Ages. These are mainly bigger than average village churches in Scandinavia because in Estonia the country churches served as fortifications during the wars as well. During unsettled times the inhabitants of the surrounding areas gathered into the churches, and even the rooms above the vaults were converted to hiding places with complicated access. The windows of such churches were narrow and they were high above the ground. Walls were loopholed for bowmen. The doors in stone portals could be bolted like fortress doors. The church balconies served as fortification passages. There is even record of some town churches whose towers like fortresses had no spires in order to make space for catapults.

Closed, massive, fortified churches give the impression characteristic of the Roman style, in spite of their sharply arched portals and arches. There is little pure Romanesque architecture in Estonia. It exists mainly in details in the churches erected in the 13th century, when the Gothic style still competed with the vanishing Romanesque. The country churches influenced by Gothland and Westphalia include Ambla, Kaarma, Koeru, Ridala and Valjala parish churches. The Estonian fortified churches are poor in ornaments, but they have good proportions. A typical Estonian medieval country church is single-naved, has a three-vaulted hall with a somewhat narrower choir room and a sacristy on the West side. There is no apse and originally there was often no spire. A saddle roof, supported by high and narrow pediments, gives the building an aspiration towards height characteristic of the Gothic style. Another type of country church is a church having three equal naves that may have interesting pillar capitals, but from the outside it does not differ from a simple single-naved church. There is only a little refined decoration in terms of sculpture and even this is mainly in geometric form. The few plant, heraldic and figural sculptural decorations have been merged into the laconic form of the room as valuable vignettes which give an accent to entrances. There are only a few fragments of the once polychrome Gothic sculptures. In some of the country churches, geometric and figural paintings have been discovered and restored (e.g. in Muhu, Kaarma, Valjala and Ridala).

Pöide fortified church, 13 - 14 th century

In regard to the inventory of the churches, the majority of Estonian churches have Baroque or Neogothic pulpits, altars, pews, chandeliers and communion equipment. The majority of altar paintings have been modernised by academicians of the 19th century. Gothic wooden sculptures, painted altars and baptismal bowls have mostly been preserved in Tallinn, which has never been conquered by assault nor totally devastated during a war. The churches of Saaremaa are better preserved than those of mainland Estonia.

In the Middle Ages, Estonia was divided into three episcopates. The Tallinn, or Estonian, Episcopate was devoted to the Virgin Mary; the patrons of the Tartu Episcopate were the apostles Peter and Paul; the evangelist John was considered to be the guardian of the Saare-Lääne Episcopate (with centres in Kuressaare and Haapsalu).

The most valuable monuments of sacral town architecture are situated in the centres of the former episcopates. In Tallinn the Medieval architecture is mainly represented by the Cathedral on Toompea Hill, next to the Art Museum and not far from the Parliament, as well as the old town congregation churches of Oleviste and Niguliste, the Town Hall chapel and the Holy Ghost Church, which was used as a poorhouse church. Large sections of the former abbeys, among which the ruins of Brigidine Convent are the most impressive and peculiar, have been preserved. The most important town churches of Tallinn according to their type of construction are three vaulted basilicas, of which the most monumental is Oleviste Church dedicated to Norwegian St Olav; until 1625 its spire of 159 metres, built as a sea-mark, was the highest building in the world (the present height of the spire is 123.7 metres). Tartu's Jaani Church, built in the 13th century, is considered to be the most artistic church of Estonia, with its thousands of handmade, flaunting terracotta reliefs and sculptures, unique in Northern Europe. This unique construction monument, in ruins since the Soviet bombing in 1944, is being restored. In Tartu there are the monumental ruins of the Peeter-Pauli Cathedral, characteristic of the Southern-Estonian brick gothic. Its gallery was reconstructed for the Tartu University library in the 19th century.

Group of houses The Three Sisters in Tallinn, 15th century

The former centres of Saare-Lääne Episcopate, Haapsalu and Kuressaare, are worth visiting primarily thanks to their powerful Episcopal castles. Although Peter the Great wanted it destroyed, Kuressaare Castle is one of the best surviving strongholds in Estonia. The convent building, with two towers of large dolomite blocks, beautiful arched halls and covered arcades, is surrounded by a bastion belt that received its final shape during the Baroque period under Swedish governance. Haapsalu Castle is less intact, but its treasure is a castle church with its magnificent feeling of space (St Nicholas, 13th century).

Regarding fortified abbey architecture, the ruins of a Cistercian monastery at Padise, dating from the 14-16th centuries, are the most interesting in Estonia. They have a unique moralistic sculptural decor on the arch consoles of the church.

World-level Hanseatic art by masters of Bruges, Brussels, Lübeck and Tallinn can be seen in Niguliste and the Holy Ghost churches in Tallinn and in the museum of Kuressaare Castle. The most famous and unique piece of art is the Dance of Death in Tallinn. Originally the painting by Bernt Notke, a master of the Lübeck School, depicted Death carrying off the 24 representatives of the medieval estates. Of the huge frieze, that was originally over 25 metres long, only 7.5 metres of the beginning part with 13 figures has survived. The altars of the Holy Ghost and Niguliste churches made by the Lübeck masters and the Mary altar of the Blackheads Fraternity from Bruges belong to world art masterpieces.

The most important and original monument of Estonian Gothic is the city of Tallinn itself, or rather the 0.7 per cent of the territory of modern Tallinn that constitutes the architectural-historical protection zone of Tallinn Old Town. There is no other Hanseatic city on the coast of the Baltic Sea that has preserved the main elements of its structure to such an extent. The non-orderly network of streets can be partially traced back to the joining roads of the ancient Estonian stronghold and the trading center of the late Viking Age; the present network of streets was widely used in the 13-14th centuries. The 454 properties in the old city are divided into medieval blocks as well and one can recognise the medieval warehouses and dwelling houses of the merchants and artisans, together with household buildings, in their main plans and in the buildings. The most important public buildings of the city from the Middle Ages have been preserved as well - the Town Hall, guild houses, an armoury, a chemist's shop, a prison, a workshop and poorhouses. The sacral architecture - churches and abbeys - have also been preserved more or less in their medieval form. Three quarters of all this is surrounded by a preserved town wall, its 27 towers of the former 42 are the relicts of the age of bowmen and knights. The town wall, together with the Toompea's small and big castles (castrum minus et castrum majus), constituted one of the strongest fortification ensembles in the 16th century in Northern Europe, including 66 towers with walls, banks, cannon holes, a moat, bastions and other accessories.

Bernt Notke. The main altar of the Tallinn Holy Ghost Church, 1483 (zoom: 212K)

The buildings of Tallinn, made of grey limestone, are poor in decorations and have short and expressive shape. The Cyclopean massiveness of the walls does not hinder the aspiration of the high narrow gables and sharp spires towards the sky, according to the spirituality of the Gothic architecture. The numerous verticals provide the city with an expressive silhouette that even now expresses the proud self-consciousness of the citizens of a rich trading city who built "for the beauty of the city and for the glory of God".

Every century following the Hanseatic Age has obviously changed or added something to the city under the governance of Sweden and Russia in Estonia, as well as during the time of the independent Republic of Estonia. The Second World War has left its unfortunate trace: 11 per cent of the buildings of the old city were destroyed during the Soviet assaults. In the old city of Tallinn, there is quite a bit of background architecture that can be distracting at first glimpse, as the façades of the medieval houses have been redesigned according to later styles of fashion. However, behind them the ancient main plans, old building constructions and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque interior elements, have been preserved. These layers of various centuries, depicting various cultural influences, make up a delicate whole, full of variations. A German, Dane, Swede, Russian or even an Italian can find here something characteristic of his or her own national culture, but at the same time, the old city of Tallinn has a unique aura.

The views opening from mysteriously winding streets, the substantial harshness of Toompea stone caressed by moist winds from the sea, the Old Town with numerous towers, and the hospitable sea gulf &endash; it is not possible to fully describe it.