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Churches of Estonia

Gallery: Churches of Tallinn

by Peter Kessler, 26 July 2009

Part 3: Church of St Nicholas

St Nicholas Church, Tallinn, Estonia

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.

Niguliste kirik, Tallinn

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 Russian merchants.

St Nicholas Church

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.

St Nicholas Church

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 outer walls.

St Nicholas Church

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.

St Nicholas Church

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.

St Nicholas Church

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 Church

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.

St Nicholas Church

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.

St Nicholas Church

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.

One photo on this page kindly contributed by Guillaume Speurt via the 'History Files: Churches of Estonia' Flickr group.



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