My hotel in Tallinn’s Old Town, the Savoy Boutique Hotel, was perfectly situated to explore all the sights within the Old Town walls as well as the fantastic things to see outside them, including the outstanding Kadriorg Park and the country’s remaining grand manor houses. Within the walls, however, it won’t be long before you’re at a great vantage point to see the high concentration of church steeples, whether it’s from the top of the walls or the top of one of those steeples of some remarkable churches. These are my favorites.
#1 Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Aleksander Nevski Katedraal)
In Toompea, the upper town within the Old Town walls of Tallinn, stands the magnificent Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the most beautiful — and the most reviled — church in the city. Let me begin with the former. The exotic Russia Orthodox cathedral, completed in 1900, is the city’s largest cathedral. Resting on a base of Finnish granite, the Russian Revival–style building is mostly in glistening white, from its formidable entry to the ogee arches. Cinnamon-colored brick adds some color, as do the five black scaly onion domes topped by gilded iron crosses. Large mosaic panels embellish the façade. The striking exterior leads to a lavish interior, richly decorated and housing 11 bells, including the largest one in Estonia, weighing in at an impressive 15 tons. The busy interior incudes a patterned floor, mosaics, three altars, three gilded, carved wooden iconostases and four icon boxes (the icons of which were painted on copper and zinc plates in St. Petersburg), gilded bronze chandeliers, and stained-glass windows. The main chapel’s altarpiece, depicting the Sacrament of the Eucharist and painted on linoleum, was based on an 11th-century mosaic in a cathedral in Kiev.
It’s sad to think that this cathedral was twice threatened with demolition, which leads to that second bit, about this place being so loathed. When the church was built over a century ago, Estonia was part of the tsarist Russian Empire, and the Russians chose the most prominent location in Tallinn’s Old Town to build their cathedral to show their religious and political dominance over the unruly Estonians. The Russians also irked the Lutherans of German descent by dedicating the cathedral to Prince Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky, who ended the Germans’ advance eastward at the Battle of the Ice at Lake Peipsi in 1242 and building it on the same spot where a statue of Martin Luther had previously stood. The cathedral was just over two decades old when Estonian authorities clamored for this symbol of Russian oppression to be demolished, but its massive and sturdy construction made the expense too much for the available funds. The cathedral closed during the Nazi occupation of World War II, and then it was left to deteriorate during Estonia’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, a young Estonian bishop petitioned for its demolition and replacing it with a planetarium, but the Soviets didn’t allow it, probably one of the few things they ever did right. Today, this cathedral that can accommodate 1,500 people may still be thorny, but it’s also regarded as an architectural masterpiece that most definitely benefits the Tallinn landscape.
#2 St. Olav’s Church (Oleviste Kirik)
On my way down from the very narrow observation platform at the top of the tower of St. Olav’s Church, some very winded people were making their way up the 258 steps in the claustrophobic stairways with rope bannisters. I had just taken in the view of the Old Town, ringed by centuries’-old walls and towers and punctuated with so many church steeples and spires, and the Gulf of Finland beyond. I was atop the tallest one, at 406’, trimmed down from the original 521’ when it was both reputedly the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625 as well as one of the oldest in Tallinn, with parts dating back to the 12th century, when it was the center of the city’s Scandinavian community. Dedicated to King Olav II, and later Saint Olav, of Norway, the church originally served a Catholic congregation before switching to Lutheran during the Reformation and to Baptist in 1950. The plain white exterior matches the equally plain white interior. I presumed that those in charge must have been tired of trying to redecorate: This church has been completely ruined by fire at least three times, the tower has been aflame about 10 times, and then, of course, you have to throw in the desecration during the Lutheran Reformation. Reconstruction after the first fire, in 1433, gave the church its present size and shape as a three-aisled basilica. Richly decorated at the time, the Reformation prompted looting and desecration of its ornamentation and 25 altars. A fire in 1625 was fierce enough to destroy everything but the exterior walls, with the intense heat melting bells and metal objects, breaking tombstones, and cracking stone pillars. In 1931, another lightning strike on the tower prompted another fire. What exists today is a largely unadorned, but highly refined, structure with simple columns, intricately ribbed ceilings, and fancy chandeliers with double-headed eagles. The organ dates back to 1842, when it was the largest one ever built in Estonia. A wonderful Crucifixion scene backs the main altar, guarded by a lovely rail, and a side altar boasts an impressive carved altarpiece. Despite its Nordic heritage, this church, like Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, has a Russian connection: From 1944 until 1991, the Soviet KGB used the spire as a radio tower and surveillance point.
#3 St. Nicholas Church (Niguliste Kirik)
Just down a cobblestone street from Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, I arrived at the medieval St. Nicholas Church. Actually, it’s a former church, now operating as the Niguliste Museum, a branch of the Art Muesum of Estonia, but without surrendering its religious beginnings. Dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen and sailors in the 13th century, the church also doubled as a defensive fort, with heavily barred entrances, loopholes, and hiding spaces for refugees. When the city’s town walls were constructed, the church shed its secondary function, and by 1420 it obtained its current appearance, with a central aisle with a clerestory above the side aisles. The tower and spire have been raised a couple of times, now topping out at just under 345’. The head of the congregation very shrewdly poured molten lead into the locks of the church in the early 1520s, when the Reformation was particularly violent, barring the vandals from entering the church, which made St. Nicholas the only church in the city to be spared the iconoclasm. It wasn’t as lucky during World War II, when the Russians (again making their mark on Tallinn’s churches) bombed the city, setting the church ablaze so badly that most of the interior was left in ruins and the destroyed tower smoked for nearly a month. Fortunately, the Estonians had seen the writing on the wall and began removing the church’s movable assets before the bombing came. The restoration took 28 years, finally completed in 1981 — but that didn’t last very long. Another fire, one year later, burned the spire and roofs and damaged the interior. Repaired again, the church this time switched to its now third and fourth functions, as the museum and as a concert hall, thanks to its fine acoustics.
I was here to see its mixture of modern windows and organ and terrific collection of old church art. Past the massive seven-armed brass candelabra from 1519 that’s more than 13’ tall, I began my exploration of the museum’s collection, a permanent assemblage of the most outstanding and valuable pieces of Estonian medieval and early modern ecclesiastical art, most of which are from the church itself, and most of which remains in situ, including coats of arms, epitaphs, remains of finely carved numbered pews, and more than one hundred full and fragmented tombstones. The magnificent altarpiece of the high altar is one of the largest 15th-century German altarpieces in the world, a combination of paintings and 30 wooden sculptures of different saints. My favorite piece was Danse Macabre, a long, horizontal 15th-century painting depicting skeletal Death meeting up with a pope, bishop, king, queen, and other mortals of higher strata, reminding us that no one can escape their limited time on earth. Although only a part of the original 98.4’-wide painting remains, it’s still one of the world’s best depictions of skeletons, and a particularly frightening one at that.
#4 St. Charles’s Church (Kaarli Kirik)
While most visitors to Tallinn stay within the Old Town walls, the wiser ones also escape that confinement to see what’s on the outside. One of the highlights is St. Charles’s Church, across from the massive National Library of Estonia and the excellent Museum of Occupations and Freedom. Tallinn’s grandest 19th-century church was finally completed in 1882 after two decades of construction. The current structure replaced an earlier one on the same site that had been commissioned by the Swedish King Charles XI during the time of Swedish rule over Estonia for the use of the Estonian and Finnish population of the city and that burned down during the Great Northern War in 1710. Only one item from that original structure remains — the cast-iron bell from 1696. The large and handsome limestone church, built in the Romanesque Revival style to accommodate 1,500 people, features twin towers, topped with identical crosses, flanking a rose window that, quite unusually, features a clock. Inside, I was impressed by its size, which appears even larger thanks to the architect’s employment of a technique that keeps the ceiling aloft without the use of columns or pillars, making the space wide-open and hall-like. Above the entrance, the largest church organ in Estonia, installed in 1924, is often used for concerts. Moving forward, my eye was attracted upward to a very elaborate chandelier, seemingly bronze, that mimics the other silver chandeliers. It’s a fascinating achievement; no metal was used at all — it’s crafted from papier mâché. The fresco of a welcoming Jesus at the altar bears particular importance to the nation. Come to Me was painted in 1879 — the first fresco in Estonia made by an ethnic Estonian, completed in all of 10 days.
#5 Church of the Holy Spirit (Püha Vaimu Kirik)
Tucked into a narrow alley, the Church of the Holy Spirit lured me with its slender, octagonal tower, Gothic windows, and whitewashed exterior with crow-stepped gables. With its oldest parts dating to the 1300s, and featuring a phenomenal door hinge that is truly a work of art, the church has seen its share of modifications, fires, and reconstructions as well as fluctuating congregation numbers that have ranged from up to 20,000 members to only 1,200 after World War II, a number that continued to decline as elder members died and young folk were discouraged from practicing any religion under the stern Soviets. Only since Estonia’s second independence in 1991 have the numbers started to tick up again.
With such a long history, I was eager to explore it. The unusual plan of the interior of this Lutheran church places the choir asymmetrically to one side of the two-aisled nave. Treading along the wood floors, I admired the main altar from 1483, with a central panel depicting the descent of the Holy Ghost to the Twelve Apostles. Scenes from the Bible, from the mid-1600s, adorn the galleries, accessed via short but dizzying spiral staircases. A wonderful sounding board caps the beautiful pulpit (one of Estonia’s oldest, from 1597) with sculptures of the Four Evangelists. It was in this church that services were held in the Estonian language for the first time, way back in 1531; only four years later, the first extracts of the catechism to be published in Estonian were printed here — two major milestones that make Holy Spirit one of the most revered churches in the country. To make it even more wonderful, the church also boasts one of the best clocks in the world. On the outside wall, this clock with a sunburst on the face, Roman numerals, and small sculptured figures of the Four Evangelists tucked into the corners, dates back to the 17th century, which makes it the oldest public timepiece in Tallinn.
- Cathedral of St. Mary the Virgin (Neitsi Maarja Katedraal; 1430s)
- St. John’s Church (Jaani Kirik; 1867)
- St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral (Peeter-Pauli Katedraal; 1845)
- Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas (Niguliste Kirik; 1827)
- St. Michael’s Swedish Church (Rootsi-Mihkli Kirik; 1531)
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