Located on Harju street, between the heart of
Tallinn's Old Town and the hill of Toompea, St Nicholas Church
(Niguliste kirik in Estonian) is one of the city's oldest and most
important churches. When the first church was built on this site,
much of Tallinn's lower town did not yet exist. The church was
surrounded by Danish military posts and German merchants, and it
was probably the latter who established it as their place of worship
in the town.
They were settling in Tallinn in some numbers
after being invited there from Gotland by the Order of the Brothers
of the Sword in the 1240s, but little else is known about them, or
about any of the population of Tallinn in this period. Toompea hill
was the seat of Danish power in North Estonia, while the port area
between St Olaf's Church and St Nicholas Orthodox Church, destroyed
in the fire of 1433, was probably being settled by Scandinavian and
Estonians themselves may have lived closer to St
Nicholas Church in the Old Town (Vanalinn) area, near the modern
Town Hall building, which was within the congregation of the Church
of the Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit). More recent German merchants who
had arrived in Tallinn probably took available land around the site
of St Nicholas Church, which probably explains why the church was
built in the first place.
The earliest grave marker in the church dates to
1309, but the first official records which mention the church come
from 1315 and concern a plot of land next door to it. As well as offering
services, the church also performed a defensive function. Tallinn's
town walls had not yet been built, so the church also acted as a
kind of stronghold (a small castle), which was a typical sight in
medieval North Estonia, and which can be seen in its very solid
The walls of the three-nave church would have
been made of stone, and were completed by the end of the thirteenth
century. The impressive hewn stone doorways were constructed at the
same time. The church's fortified role ended in the fourteenth century,
when the city's wall began to appear, and smaller annexes were built
as add-ons to the main building. These include the chapels of St
Barbara, St George, and St Matthew.
The tower was built mainly in the period up to 1423,
during major reconstruction work for the church. But raising the tower
ever higher became a point of controversy when it began to rise over
Toompea, the separate citadel at the top of the hill in which the
ruling nobility lived. Work was ordered to stop, and it took a further
century before the town council allowed it to be completed. By that
time the town's relationship with Toompea had changed considerably.
The reformist movement against icons which was
triggered by Martin Luther in the German principalities never got
past the doors of St Nicholas, unlike St Olaf's and the Holy Spirit
churches. The raging mob which had come to destroy the church's holy
vessels and images which symbolised Catholicism were unable even to
open the doors because the locks had been filled with molten lead,
sealing it off. The church's past life as a stronghold had stood it
in good stead.
St Nicholas gained its modern-day appearance
during reconstruction work in the very late 1600s. The Soviet
invasion of 1944 saw not only much of Harju street destroyed, but
also the church's spire and roof burnt down, along with much of the
interior. Most of the church's treasures had been moved to safety
beforehand, but the building remained a ruin until it was
painstakingly restored in the seventies, only for the tower to be
badly damaged by fire in 1982.
Following the devastating fire, demolition was
considered. The melted and twisted wreckage of the spire was hanging
down from the tower and almost reached the ground. However, despite
some calls for the church to be cleared away entirely, further
restoration was decided upon instead, and the fully restored church
was opened in 1984. It was no longer needed for services, so it
found a new life as a museum and concert hall.
In that role, as a National Arts Museum subsidiary,
many works of art which had been absent for decades have been returned.
The large main altar, made by Herman Rode of Lübeck in 1481, has been
preserved. The church also houses two important works by Bernt Notke,
dating to the mid-1400s, one being the initial section of Tallinn's
greatest piece of medieval art, the 'Dance macabre', which depicts the
transience of life for everyone whether high born or low.