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Modern Estonia

Gallery: Churches of Tallinn

by Peter Kessler & Alesja Pozlevitš, 3 May 2009. Updated 26 July 2009

Part 1: Dome Church / St Mary's Episcopal Dome Church

Dome Church in Tallinn, Estonia

The Dome Church (Toomkirik in Estonian) is more formally known as St Mary's Episcopal Dome Church (Tallinna Puha Neitsi Maarja Piiskoplik Toomkirik). It is the mother church of the country's official Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church body. The invading Danes probably built the original, temporary wooden church on the spot on Toompea Hill shortly after their conquest of North Estonia in 1219. There were already some Christianised elements in the country before that date.

Toomkirik, Tallinnas, Eestis

The Danes were expelled in 1227 when the Order of the Brothers of the Sword expanded out of central Estonia. The Dominican Order monks started building a stone church on Toompea in 1229. The first written mention of the cathedral itself dates from 1233, with a battle between the Order and pro-Papal vassals who wanted to create an ecclesiastical state. The bodies of defeated pro-Papal knights were piled at the alter after the battle spread inside the church.

St Mary's Cathedral in Tallinn

King Valdemar reacquired North Estonia for Denmark in 1238. He appointed the bishopric of Tallinn to the Dome Church in 1240, subordinated to the archdiocese of Lund in Sweden. The cathedral chapter was established, while the cathedral itself was consecrated in the name of St Mary the Virgin. By 1319 at the latest a school had also been established at the church, although the building looked very different from its modern appearance which is mostly eighteenth century.

St Mary's Cathedral in Estonia

Reconstruction of the modest, single-nave church began at the start of the 1300s, turning it into a three-nave building over the course of a century of work. Lutheran reform entered the churches of the Old Town, below the hill, by 1524, but Catholic services continued to be held in the Dome Church until 1561, when Sweden gained control of Tallinn. A library was added in 1641 while a donation from Queen Christina of Sweden in 1651 allowed a copper roof to be added.

Toomkirik Toompeas Tallinnas

A great fire on Toompea in 1433 destroyed a great deal. Rebuilding included chapels on the south side, St George's Chapel on the north side, and a chapel at the north-east corner of the main rectangle which no longer exists. The cathedral remained without the high tower which was so typical of regional churches, so a small tower was added in the corner of the chancel and the south aisle. The lower part survives to this day. An even greater fire struck on 6 June 1684.

Dome Church in Tallinn

This time only the church walls survived - even the library was lost. King Charles XI held a nationwide collection in Sweden to help restore the cathedral within just two years. The chapel began to be used as a burial place for important personages, but the Great Northern War delayed the tower's building, which was done in 1778-1779 under Russian control. Baroque remodelling was carried out on the interior of the cathedral, and it is mostly this version which survives today.

Additional text on this page by Alesja Pozlevitš.

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