The Altarpiece of the Tallinn Brotherhood of BlackheadsEstonian Institute
Helena Risthein
Blackhead This year in mediaeval Tallinn year was dedicated to the estimated 600th anniversary of the Brotherhood of St. Maurice, or the Blackheads. The wealthy and energetic half-military organization sometimes compared itself with the knightly courts of Arthur(. It mainly united unmarried German merchants in the towns of Old Livonia and later in Germany, where it is still active. Among their patron saints were holy warriors, such as St. Maurice, a black officer of the Roman Thebean legion. He was christianised and martyred together with 6600 men in the year 287. His head is depicted on the coat of arms of the brotherhood. A special publication about the history of the organization (Tallinn, 1999) includes some of the Blackheads' documents dating from 1400 and a catalogue of their art treasures. Among the treasures are a number of large paintings, mainly portraits of Swedish, German, and Russian sovereigns and noblemen through the ages; silver, furniture and dishes; coats of arms; standards; and uniforms. Most of the collections in Estonia now belong to the museums and archives.


The Altar Before the Lutheran Reformation in Estonia (1524), the religious life of the Blackheads was connected with the Dominican Order. Many items of art were donated to the powerful Dominican monastery in Tallinn. Traces of the Brotherhood can be found in the Church of St. Nicholas (Niguliste) in Tallinn. The church, which was first established for German merchants who settled nearby in the 13th century, was extended and rebuilt in the 15th century as a basilica with a polygonal apse. The main altarpiece was ordered from Hermen Rode, in Luebeck, and donated to the church in 1482 by the Great Guild of Merchants. The outer wings of the altar carry Tallinn's small coat of arms, a white cross on red shield. There is another shield on the wings of the altarpiece which depicts the familiar black head in profile.

In the Church of St. Nicholas, there is also a large gravestone from 1559. It has been adorned with the coat of arms of the Blackheads, which is held by two lions. St. Maurice's head is depicted twice - on the shield and on the crest. The relief is low due to the material, local limestone, which is dug in slabs. Limestone has determined both the sculptures and the architecture of old Tallinn. The gravestone was broken after the WW2 and later put together from the pieces. The most valuable of all the Blackheads' art treasures, is the large, late Gothic altarpiece, a triptych with doubled wings, oil and tempera on wood. It was first placed in the Church of St. Catherine in the Dominican monastery. It was hidden during the Reformation from fear of iconoclasts, and was later placed in the House of the Brotherhood at Pikk 22. The altarpiece had to be hidden again during the Second World War to prevent it from being taken abroad. Much later, it was on display in Kadriorg Palace and since 1984, in the Church of St. Nicholas. Now a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia, the Church of St. Nicholas exhibits old Flemish, German, and local art from Gothic to Baroque. The altarpiece was dedicated to St. Mary, as was the Brotherhood itself. St. Mary is enthroned and in Sacra conversatione with four saints: the chivalrous St. George, St. Maurice or Victor, St. Francis of Assisi in a monk's habit, and abbess St. Gertrude of Nivelle. They represent fighting for Christianity, nursing the sick, following the word of the Lord wisely and with compassion, respectively. St. George and St. Maurice or Victor are depicted on the central panel. The representations of St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Gertrude of Nivelle are on the wings. The saints were also patrons of several professions. With the inner wings closed, the deesis is apparent. The Virgin Mary (Maria lactans) and St. John the Baptist are turning to the Holy Trinity to protect the Blackheads, who are represented in large number; the Blackheads are kneeling on the left and right on the inner sides of the outer wings. These Tallinners have survived in their eternal prayer for 500 years. The elderly man on the foreground is portrayed especially well. We get an excellent picture here of the Erkorener Ğlteste, the elected elder of the Brotherhood and the initiator of the commission. When all of the wings are closed, only two, tall figures in the Annunciation scene can be seen. The archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are painted in grisaille-technique. Colours of alabaster and gold make these figures look like sculptures. This technique was often used on closed Gothic altarpieces in the Netherlands.



The Altar In 1995, a conference dedicated to the arrival of this magnificent work of art in Tallinn in 1495 was organised. A booklet with a small model of the altarpiece was published(. Dr. Didier Martens from Brussels told the participants many interesting facts about the author of the paintings. Local scholars in the 19th century associated the altarpiece with Jan van Eyck or considered it the last work of Memling. Later, Mai Lumiste (Estonia) and the famous Nicole Veronee-Verhaegen (Belgium) found many similarities between the altarpiece of the Blackheads and the works of an anonymous artist, a contemporary and successor of Memling. Some art historians have called the artist the Bruges Master of 1480. He was identified for a while with Jean de Hervy, but mainly with an anonymous master, whom Max Friedländer named the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy after the painting in St. James' Church in Bruges (1480). Today, two dissertations have been written on the theme in the USA by Ann M. Roberts and Constance J. Larson The Master knew the heritage of all the 15th century Flemish, and perhaps also Spanish art well. His works include motifs from Jan van Eyck's, Rogier van der Weyden's and Dirk Bouts' paintings. The altarpieces differ in form according to the customer - a retablo for Italy or a winged altar, a Wandelaltar, for a Hanseatic town near the Baltic Sea. The artist and his assistants often painted the same views of Bruges; the same wild flowers, especially dandelions in different stage of blossom; and the same pomegranate ornament, repeating it with the help of stencil. Other simplifying methods were used in his paintings starting from the base layer.


Hermen Rode. Tallinn Altar (detail) Mary's face in our Annunciation resembles the face of St. Lucy in the Bruges church, and St. Gertrude's that of St. Lucy's mother. There are similarities to be found in the representations of the enthroned Madonna and in St. George. A painting in Rouen, depicting two saints, was recently attributed to the Master, on the basis of similarities with the faces of the altarpiece. Of nearly fifty works, perhaps the two most significant are Mary, Queen of Heaven (215.9x185.4cm) and our winged altarpiece (225x167 cm - 75.5 cm). The former originated from a convent near Burgos in 1485, and is now in Washington. It united the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin in one scene(. The panels of the winged altar are among the largest in old Flemish art. Such luxury certainly was the aim of the Tallinners, who have ordered large altarpieces from Luebeck and Bruges many times, very few of which have survived. A triptych of Christ's Passion (1515), another work from Bruges which originated from A. Isenbrandt's or A. Cornelis' circle, was partly painted over in the 1520s; some additions were made in the 1550s and 1654. The altarpiece of the Blackheads was restored in the 17th century, in 1722, 1881, and since 1958. The two faces of the central panel and the kneeling Christ of one of the wings are badly damaged. It is important to examine the paintings with contemporary means and to study them further. Special windows in the church are crucial to protect the exhibits from direct sunlight and to ensure that the original colours of the paintings will survive.

1 Tallinna Mustpead. Die Revaler Schwarzenhäupter. Hrsg. vom Stadtarchiv Tallinn, 1999.
2 R. Reidna. Tallinna Mustpeade Vennaskonna Maarja altar. The Altar of Holy Mary of the Tallinn Brotherhood of the Blackheads. The Art Museum of Estonia, 1995.
3 John Walker. The National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1975.


| Estonian Art 2/99 (6) | Published by the Estonian Institute 1999 | ISSN 1406-5711 | einst@einst.ee | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |