Many churches in Tallinn have their own legend, their own story and their one odd fact making them special. Also this church, dedicated to St. Nicholas and mostly called Niguliste church has some trivia to offer. The church was founded my german sailors in the 13th century and grew to become Tallinn’s largest church. Several chapels were added, especially in the 15th and 16th century, and they all look like small, colourful houses just built at the church wall. During WWII, the church was heavily damaged, but later rebuilt. A legend says that the interior of this church only survived iconoclasm because molten lead was poured into its locks. So, the plundering and destroying horde did not get in. This means, that you will find a lot of medeival religious art in this church, including a fragment of Bernt Notke’s famous painting “Danse Macabre”.
Though services are still taking place ocassionally, the church is mainly used as a museum and charges a small entry fee (2 EUR as of 2012). Taking pictures inside is unfortunately not allowed.
Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin is the main Lutheran Church and to the local is known as Toomkirik (Dome Church). The church was once the church of Estonia’s elite German noble. You can climb to the top of the church tower to see the view of the Old Town.
Holy Spirit Church with octagonal tower has the oldest clock in Tallinn dated from the 17th century. The church was built in the 14th century. It was this church who had the first sermons in Estonian language instead of German.
It is said that specialisation is the way of the future, but when you narrow down your congregation to Greek Ukrainian Orthodox Catholics (which reminds me of the set theory that I did at school where an increasing number of sets overlap in an ever smaller area) you're never going to need a big building to accommodate services!
The church is located away from the main tourist area on a quiet street facing the north west section of the city wall that can hardly have changed in 500 years and is well worth strolling down in its own right. The church is a converted merchant's house, and it would be easy to walk straight past without noticing it. If you look closely, you can see that the original chimney has been converted into a small bell tower. Unfortunately it is only open for services (see the website below for more details) which seem to happen at 10:00 on Sundays. The photos make it look fascinating, but very intimate, so I would imagine that it would be considered intrusive if you only visited to view the church, rather than joining in the worship.
It was a struggle to get my head around the existence of a Greek Ukrainian Orthodox Catholic community anywhere in the world - and by comparison, I felt distinctly commonplace to only be one of the common-or-garden Roman variety! And then I consulted the information board, which delivered the ultimate coup de foudre: the church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin of Three Hands! Well, of course it is!!!
By this point, I was beginning to wonder whether this was some sort of elaborate set up. However, having done some subsequent research, it turns out that the Orthodox Church indeed recognises this Virgin and that she is particularly revered by Serbians (as though we weren't already dealing with enough nationalities!). Why she would have three hands still eludes me - based on my own parenting experience, it has often struck me that having an extra hand would be useful, but it's difficult to envisage the infant Jesus as a tearaway- and of course she could probably turn a hand to anything ... oh, you could have endless hours of fun over beers mulling over this concept and indulging in increasingly lame puns!
[By the way, the orthodox version is that "the third hand represents the severed and later healed hand of St. John of Damascus when he defended the holy icons against the Iconoclasts", so know you know]
The other notable feature of the church's exterior is a wide slot with a smaller wooden aperture: initially I thought that it might be for foundlings (a mechanism by which destitute mothers could anonymously pass their children into the church's care), but in fact it is too small for that and is intended for the faithful to post intercessions. The system seems to be that you write down your request, and then the priest and/or community pray for this intention. So if there's anything you'd like the Virgin to give you a hand with, this is how you let her know (sorry, but I couldn't resist the pun)!
And finally a postscript to this story. As we turned the corner at the end of the street, we came across a number of banknotes strewn on the snow. We didn't feel that we had a right to take the money, and there was nobody around that we could return it to and nowhere that we could safely leave it without it blowing away. It seemed that the most appropriate thing to do was to donate the money to a good cause, so we walked back to the church and dropped it into the intercession slot.
The clean, graceful lines of the maize yellow St. John's church were almost pulled down in the early part of the 20th century, due to the fact that its architectural style contrasted too sharply with the more extravagent turn of the century buildings that had sprung up around it. Thankfully it was saved, and now it sits above Freedom Square on the edge of the old town, directly opposite the similarly elegant Freedom Column.
St Nicholas' church was first erected in the 13th century, although most of what can now be seen dates from the 15th. It was damaged by Soviet bombing at the end of WWll, so has had to be substantially restored.
It's a museum now, gathering together many pieces of Tallinn's Medieval religious art. There is a truly wonderful 'Dance of Death' from the 15th century, by Berndt Notke. It's commentary is translated into English, so one can understand the full meaning of the picture.
There are some beautiful altar pieces too: one, from 1481 and by Herman Rode, is amazingly brightly coloured and shows scenes from the life of St Nicholas (all participants dressed in Medieval fashions, set in Medieval landscapes).
It is well worth visiting this place: the artwork (there are stone and wooden carved pieces too) is stunning and carefully displayed.
You'll have to leave coats and large bags in the underground cloakroom:weirdly, one enters the church/museum by first going down into what must once have been a crypt.
Most people in Estonia are orthodox.
Though relegion was not very popular in soviet times in Tallinn there are many nice churches in Tallinn.
You will find them if you take a walk around the old town in Tallinn.
Inside they are also very nice. If you are lucky you get the chance of listening to ceremony with nice chants.
But take care it's absolutely not welcome if you take pictures in orthodox churches.
The church was part of the Hospital of the Holy Spirit - a typical dedication for a medieval hospital which was more a home for old and poor citizens than a place where sick people were treated. The slim white steeple with the baroque spire is a landmark in the townscape.
The building is medieval with two naves in gothic style. The interior was renewed after the reformation with the exception of the main altar which has a woodcarved late medieval retable.
The galleries bear a sequel of scenes from the bible. These paintings form a Biblia pauperum, a Bible of the Poor, in other words: a bible in pictures for those who could not read. The pictures present the main stories from the Old Testament on the right and the New Testament on the left hand side, including some of the most popular parables like the Good Samaritan. All this corresponds perfectly with Lutheran theology.
An entrance fee of 15 EEK (Sept 2009) is charged to see the interior of the church - to me, it was worth it.
The St Nicholas Church (Nikolai Kirik) is a Gothic church from the 13th century. During time these events happened to the church:
- the eerie Dance Macabre (made by Berndt Notke in the 15th century)
- baroque chandeliers
- altar from the 15th century
- silver chamber
- badly damaged by Soviet bombers in 1944 and a fire in the 1980s
Today you will find artworks artworks from medieval Estonian churches.
If you are lucky enough, you can see a service going on.
The St Olaf's Church is 124 metres tall. Once it used to be the tallest building in the world (from 1549 to 1625). Back then it was supposed to be a signpost for ships approaching the town. The church also used to be a serveillance centre by the KGB.
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