Church of the Holy Spirit in Tallinn Estonia
The Church of the Holy Spirit in Tallinn was built in the 13th century and has undergone very minimal changes since that time. It has a medieval wooden altarpiece, the oldest bell in Estonia, gallery paintings from the 17th century & had the first book in Estonian was published here.
For all the details on the church, the altarpiece meanings, and when the best times to see it open are - keep on reading. This is one medieval church you do not want to miss while in Europe!
Church of the Holy Spirit in Tallinn
Address: Pühavaimu tänav 4, Kesklinna linnaosa, Tallinn
Open: Mon-Sat 10-6pm, closed Sundays. Altar only open during Christmas time.
Built in the 14th century this church has undergone very few changes other than upkeep since it was originally built. Churches were the main gathering place in medieval times, where you could discuss your lives and be uplifted by the word of God.
Because Estonia was ruled for such a long time by the Heansiatic Order (German) many of the sermons in churches in Estonia were held in German. This church was the first church to hold sermons completely in Estonian, by Johann Koell's Catechism, written in 1535 and is considered to be the first book in Estonian ever written.
The Galleries of the Church of the Holy Spirit
The wooden galleries where patrons would stand to hear the sermons are decorated with scenes from the Bible. These scenes were painted in the 17th century, and Gothic stained glass windows were added as well.
The Medieval Wooden Altarpiece
The main wooden altarpiece was made by Bernt Notke was completed in 1483. He was one of the most important masters of the German Late Gothic style. His family were wealthy mariners' from Flanders.
The altarpiece is considered one of the most outstanding chef-d'oeuvres of Estonian medieval art. If you look closely you can see the coat of arms for Estonia, not for Germany throughout the altarpiece which means it was specifically made for the Church of the Holy Spirit.
The Outer Left Wing
On the left wing of the altar when it is closed you see the core principles of Christianity: Father of God, the great creator of heaven and earth, the holy spirt and crown of thorns on Jesus, rays of light from Christs wounds and the symbols of sacrament.
The Inner Left Wing
When the left wing is open the altar depicts scenes from the life of Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia. Saint Elisabeth was the princess of Hungary. She had been married at 14, widowed at 20, regained her dowry and used it to build a hospital where she served the sick. She gave up her earthly wealth to serve the poor and is considered the patron saint of the poor. She is known for the Miracle of Roses (related to feeding the poor) and the Miracle of Christ in bed (related to treating a leper in her bedchamber).
The left wing shows her praying in front of a cross, St Elisabeth on her deathbed, prayers of friends and family, prayer symbolized by burning candles, victory over evil symbolized by a cat under her bed catching a rat.
It also shows Jesus standing before Pontius Pilot, with a dog symbolizing infidelity and paganism. Then it also shows Jesus carrying the Cross to his death with two children mocking him.
The Inner Wing
The inner wing shows Saint Olaf on the left who is the famous Viking, and Patron Saint of Norway as he brought Christianity to Norway. Saint Anna (Mother to the Virgin Mary) and her grandchild, Jesus, who is pointing to the Bible. On the lower portion of this you can see the head of John the Baptist with a lamb on a book symbolizing Jesus. The woman is apparently a saint, but no one knows who.
I will go into more detail on the rest of the alter and church in a separate article so make sure to check out Church Of The Holy Spirit in Tallinn Altarpiece Explained.
Central Portion of the Altarpiece
The central part of the altar depicts the Miracle of the Pentecost (see Acts 2). The Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit came down to his Apostles after Jesus was Crucified and buried. It is said that this represents the 50th day from Easter Sunday (Pente in Greek means 50).
It was during the Feast of Weeks that it is said this Miracle happened. The Feast of Weeks is one of three significant Jewish festivals, Pentecost is the Greek name for Festival of Weeks. In the Jewish calendar the Festival of Weeks celebrates God giving the 10 commandments 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt. This also happens to be 50 days after the Passover happened. It also happens to be when the first fruits of the spring harvest are produced and sacrificed.
Pentecost is important to the Christian faith because this is when it is believed that Christianity truly started. It also fulfills the promise that Jesus made that 'God will send his Holy Spirit'.
You can see the eyes of those in attendance on the altar are pointed to the Holy Spirit descending upon them in the form of a dove. The dove has been lost from the altar sadly. The Virgin Mary sits on the thrown in the center, surrounded by the 12 apostles. Peter has a grey beard and stands on Mary's left with the Key's to heaven. James is holding a knife. The man supplicating on the floor is the one who commissioned the altarpiece. On the left hand side of Mary is John who is holding a chalice. Andrew does make an appearance here as the man in the back leaning against an X-shaped cross.
The small figure in the middle is Jesus, and his triumph over death. The other females in this frame are Catherine of Alexandria and Barbara.
Inner Right Wing when Open
We go back to Saint Elisabeth of Thuringia who is doing charitable deeds. Interestingly, Elisabeth was also the Patron Saint of the Teutonic Order. If you look at what she is holding in one of the paintings it is a platter of fish and a jug of wine - these were the symbols that she often is paired with.
The man in armor is Saint Victor of Marseilles, he was a Roman warrior who died because he refused to make a sacrifice to Jupiter. You also see the lower left of the right wing Saint Anthony, who was a saint from Northern Africa in the 3rd Century.
You also see Saint Elisabeth washing the feet of a poor man, who she doesn't realize is Jesus. This can be referenced to the scripture in Matthew 25 & 40 of "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethern, ye have done it unto me." The small dog in this frame is said to represent the symbol of fidelity and love.
Outer Right Wing When Open
Two of the pictures show the passion of the Christ, or when he is portrayed as being whipped and crucified. To the right of Jesus is the apostle John and the Virgin Mary. Behind them are two crying Mary's. The people who cruicified Jesus stand to his left, and a man holds a scroll from Pilate with his instructions to kill Jesus.
Outer Right Wing
The woman depicted here is not the Virgin Mary, but Saint Elisabeth again. She takes care of beggars, widows, orphans. Saint Elisabeth had three children with her husband before he died. The way that she took care of the poor was not a common occurrence in her time, it wasn't well understood either, especially when taking the leper boy into her bedchamber bed to help him.
After her husband died, she was brutally kicked out of her house with her three children (as succession goes, women couldn't hold property). She found refuge with the third Franciscan order, was able to regain her dowry at least, but then used it to build a house for the poor.
Her motto that she always told those around her was, "I say to you again - our task is to bring people joy!' -- She died at the age of 24, and was declared a saint by Pope Gregory IX in 1235.
The Oldest Bell In Tallinn
The Oldest Bell still resides in The Church of the Holy Spirit in Tallinn. There was a fire that broke out in the tower (which was then restored) but the bell that had been in there for centuries fell into the fiery inferno below and was partially melted. After finding many of the pieces of the bell, they put it together over a wooden display so that those pieces that were left could still be displayed. While it will never ring again, the intricate metal work on this is astounding.
The Oldest Clock In Tallinn
Measuring time since 1684 this clock sits just outside the Church of the Holy Spirit. Located on Pikk Street, this is the oldest clock in Tallinn. The paintings and ornate carvings were created by famous Tallinn master, Christian Ackerman. If you look closely at it, there is an inscription that reads "I strike time correctly for all, for the maidservant, for the master, and for the mistress of the house. No one can reproach me."
My Takeaway of the Church of the Holy Spirit In Tallinn
While I don't always agree with how things were handled in medieval times, I do appreciate just how much time, effort and feeling was placed into the altars and artwork. It makes me sad to to think that such fine work is not done as much anymore because people just don't have the time or patience in the rat race of life.
When you walk into this church, you can feel the history, sense the prayers, and feel the quiet peace that comes inherently with smaller spaces. I haven't seen galleries with paintings that have been maintained like this one. The woodwork on the altarpiece could draw the eye through a maze of wonder and despite not being very religious at this time in my life, I found my heart being touched by the altar and all its elements.
It is a short walk to this church from Town Hall and I think it is well worth the effort to go and see it.
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