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Churches of Estonia

Gallery: Churches of Tallinn

by Peter Kessler, 15 November 2009

Part 13: Pirita Convent

Pirita Convent, Tallinn

The ruins of Pirita Convent (Pirita klooster) are located a short way back from the main road through Pirita, along the coast to the north of Tallinn. The idea of creating a Catholic convent in Estonia was raised by some merchants around 1400. The sisters of the Catholic Order of St Bridget, otherwise known as the Bridgettine Order, arrived in Estonia in 1412. The first convent of St Bridget was opened in Vadstena in Sweden, in 1384, and the order quickly spread.

Pirita Convent, Tallinn

At this time Tallinn (or Reval, as it was known by its German masters) had started to benefit from its privileged situation as a Hanseatic port and a key trading crossroads between east and west. During the medieval building boom in Tallinn, the city's walls were heavily rebuilt and many new towers were added. In addition to Pirita Convent, several other outstanding buildings were constructed, including the Town Hall in the Old Town.

Pirita Convent, Tallinn

This building boom caused a shortage of materials and organisational skills. Land for the convent was finally secured on the right bank of the River Pirita, but it took several more years of difficulties before, in 1417, the first limestone quarry permit was secured with help from the grandmaster of the Livonian Order and work on the convent started. The church was consecrated on 15 August 1436 by Bishop Heinrich II of Reval, a date that is still celebrated in Tallinn.

Pirita Convent, Tallinn

Pirita Convent remained in operation for the next 150 years as the largest nunnery in Old Livonia. Its facade had a monumental triangular gable rising over the portal, reaching to a height of about thirty-five metres. The convent's floor space totalled more than 1,360 metres squared. Atypically, the main altar was located in the east, due to the location of the convent beside the river making it impractical to place the visitor's entrance there. Instead it was reversed.

Pirita Convent, Tallinn

According to the rules of St Bridget's convents, the church had thirteen altars, all named after the apostles, so that each priest had his own altar and apostle. In addition there were several other side altars such as the St Bridget altar. Each convent could not have more than 85 members: sixty sisters and twenty-five brothers. The nuns and monks were kept separated by the church building itself, and when inside it during joint masses they were not allowed to see each other.

Pirita Convent, Tallinn

A small-scale invasion of Russians into Old Livonia and North Estonia took place in January 1575, during the Livonian Wars. The Russians reached the outskirts of Tallinn, destroying Pirita Convent and the nearby village. The local inhabitants never restored most of the buildings. As late as the 1930s a potato field covered the former nuns quarters and the potatoes were stored in the former hypocaust of the abbess' residence. A new nunnery was built next to the old ruins in 2001.

All photos on this page kindly contributed by K Kimmel.



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