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Tartu Jaani (St Johns) Church

The History of Jaani Church


Tartu Jaani Church Foundation

Pildid Jaani kirikust


Medieval architectural monuments probably form the most valuable part of the comparatively rich architectural heritage of Estonia. Among the former, Tartu Jaani (St Johns) Church in its own turn occupies a special place. It does so, first and foremost, because of its sculptures. Both the interior and the exterior of the church are covered with numerous decorative details. All of those are made of terracotta, i.e. burnt clay. Originally, there must have been more than a thousand of those, and even though many of them have been destroyed over the ages, the number of the retained ones is still impressive. Terracotta is not entirely unknown in medieval art, but there is no other building in the entire European Gothic tradition that could in any significant way compete with Tartu Jaani Church in the number, size and artistic quality of the terracotta sculptures. It is precisely this that gives the church more than just a local significance, making it a truly representative monument of the entire Western Gothic architecture. Incidentally, as early as in 1558, a book by Tilemann Bredenbach, published in Köln, mentions this church of John the Baptist as a very masterfully built and costly building, while touching upon the events of the Reformation in Tartu. Among other decorations, there were statues of Jesus and the twelve apostles.   

Although the church has been destroyed and reconstructed several times, and it stands in ruins since 1944, its original medieval general shape is still easily detectable. An oblong polygonal choir with a vestry on its northern side has been added to the longitudinal building with a strong steeple that faces west and has a basilica with three naves. There is the so-called Chapel of Lübeck on the southern side of the longitudinal building – a reminder of the times when Tartu as a Hanse town mediated commerce primarily between Lübeck and Russia. 

However, the church has not been constructed according to a single plan, and it acquired its final medieval look after several changes in the plan, reconstructions and, probably, also catastrophes. We know that in 1323 the church, or to be more exact, the congregation was there, although we have no information as to whether it was the same church that we know today. Archeological examinations of the building have provided important information. Although there are still many gaps there, this work gives us at least some idea of the history of the development of the building. It also became evident that the history of the building process of the church is much longer that could be presumed on the basis of the visible part of the walls. Thus the fragments of an east-west situated wooden building were discovered, on the western side of which lay the tombs. This building dates from the second half of the 12th century or the beginning of the 13th century at the latest. It is hard to say what the building as a whole looked like, since very little has been preserved. There is reason to believe, however, that it was a church. If this is the case, it represents the first and hitherto only sign of a Christian church building in Estonia before the conquests of the 13th century and the great Christianization. 

The erection of the stone church began at the choir section. It was about as wide as the chancel, yet had a straight end part. The period of extensive construction work must have started towards the end of the 13th century. It was then that a new groundwork technique was developed at the building. The downtown part of Tartu lies on swampy ground, and in order to ensure the maximum stability of  substructures, the latter were built on wooden rafts. The work must have begun with the steeple and the western wall connected to it, this being the most massive part of the entire building, while at the same time the proportions of the longitudinal building were designed and the appropriate rafts made. A major change in the plan occurred, though, at the beginning of the construction of the piers of the central nave. It seems that a relatively narrow triumphal arch had been initially planned, that would have steeply separated the choir from the room of the congregation. Now it was decided that the triumphal arch should be wide, which necessitated the widening of the central nave as well. Since the size of the latter in the western part was already determined by the steeple, at least partly completed by this time, the central nave had to be shaped so that it widened towards the eastern direction in a rather peculiar manner. This in its own turn required changes in the foundation as well, which unfortunately have had a destabilizing effect on the walls in general. The evolution of the forms of bricks also points to constant changes and modernization: while in the older parts of the longitudinal building polished corners have been used for decorative purposes, then in the piers and windows of the longitudinal building those have been replaced by pear-shaped sharp-crested torus. Originally, at the time the piers and longitudinal walls were being built, the desired space form seems to have been that of a hall church . But the plans were changed once again, and the longitudinal building acquired the general shape of a much more festive basilica.  

A powerful western steeple (the upper part of which supposedly dating from the 18th century) dominates the exterior of the church that was probably completed as late as the second half of the 14th century. The western portal is crowned with a pediment – a canopy, in the niches of which fifteen figures are located. The central one, the Enthroned Christ (a 20th-century copy) is surrounded by Mary and John the Baptist as intercessors, and by twelve apostles. This is the so-called deesis group, referring to the Last Judgment Day. The top of the canopy crosses the quatrefoil frieze of heads. The frieze continues also in the upper part of the walls of the aisles. There is a frieze of semi-figures further up on the façade of the steeple, marking the former height and design of the high wall of the central nave. 

However, interiors, especially the central nave, were the most abundantly decorated parts of the church. Unfortunately, very little of all this has been preserved. A line of figures used to stand on the stems of the four-sided piers under baldachins. All we have of them now is just big cut blocks of brick. There are numerous fantastic bird-dragons of different shapes on the capitals of the piers, alongside with plant motifs and heraldic lilies. There was yet another line of sitting figures on the capitals, which, again, have been totally destroyed. The adjacent zone of the high wall between arcades and the clerestory has been designed in a very exceptional way. It is divided by a line of niches (three in each bay of a vault), forming an illusory triforium, in which again figures sit under baldachins, the central ones having a crown and a scepter. Such an extremely unique solution of a high wall in the entire Gothic architecture has been inspired by English examples. 

Sculptures had also an important part in the design of the narrow walls of the central nave. On the western side above the arch opening of the steeple is the statue of the Enthroned Christ – Majestas Domini, accompanied by six other figures of saints. On the eastern wall above the triumphal arch is a frieze of semi-figures, and a life-size group of the crucifix, which was placed there after the decision had been made in favour of the space form of basilica. In addition, there were smaller pier figures and vault consoles with plastic décor in the aisles. On the keystones of the cross-ribbed vaults of the longitudinal building were the symbols of Christ and the evangelists. 

The choir was designed considerably less lavishly. It is possible that the groins here had floral décor, which is quite exceptional in Estonia. The vaults of the vestry, the keystones of which bear the symbols of Mary (the rose) and Christ (Agnus Dei), have been preserved quite well.

The Chapel of Lübeck has also undergone a complicated process of development, which resulted in the room that had a double bay-of- a-vault polygonal end part. The latter was connected with the longitudinal building by a grand perspective portal. 

Unfortunately, destruction prevails in the modern history of Jaani Church. It suffered serious damage during the Great Northern War in 1708 when the withdrawing Russian troops systematically blasted the town. The upper part of the steeple probably collapsed and fell on the longitudinal building, destroying the vaults of the central nave and the choir. During the scanty emergency restoration of the church, the central nave was made lower, while the walls of the choir were made higher, and both parts of the building were covered with one roof. The following major change affected the look of the southern side of the church, at which site the restoration of the Chapel of Lübeck had started in the 17th century. Several funeral chapels were built there at the time, including that of Chr. von Münnich, which was built in the western bay of a vault of the Chapel of Lübeck in 1746, forming a new baroque portal there. After 1769, the funeral chapel of Ernst von Münnich was built on the southern side of the steeple. 

In the 1820-30s, the interiors of the church were reconstructed according to the plans of G. F. W. Geist, attempting to make the room look like an antique temple. Regrettably, this may have been the greatest blow to the building in its entire history. Up till then, the majority of the sculptures of the interior had been preserved. These, however, did not meet the requirements of the classicistic formal canons and were mostly cut down. Only those statues were preserved that were simply easier to wall up or to plaster. Beginning with 1899, the façades of the church were restored under the supervision of W. Bockslaff, an architect from Riga. Now the more recent layers of plaster were removed from the walls, and the exterior sculptures uncovered. The clean-joint finishing was restored, destroyed details and some sculptures, too, were replaced. As is understandable, the restoration practice of those times was not always based on exact research, and thus we see here a lot of free fantasy. After the restoration of the façades, plans were made to restore the interior rooms as well, but these plans were foiled by World War I. The church retained its appearance as described above until World War II. During the Soviet offensive in August 1944, Jaani Church was also in flames.

Kaur Alttoa  


Important Dates in the History of Jaani Church 

The second half of the 12th century – beginning of the 13th century
Fragments of a wooden building, probably a church, found at the present site of  Jaani Church. 

Earliest information about the existence of a church or a congregation. 

During the blasting of Tartu in the Great Northern War, the upper part of the steeple and the vaults of the central nave and choir were destroyed. 

The interiors of the church were reconstructed according to the plans of architect G. F. Geist, modelled on an antique temple. Most of the interior sculptures were destroyed, the rest either walled up or plastered. 

The façade of the church was restored under the supervision of W. Bockslaff, an architect from Riga. Layers of plaster were removed from the exterior sculptures, some of the destroyed sculptures were replaced by copies. 

The church burned during the Soviet offensive. 

The northern wall of the central nave collapsed. 

A Polish company, PKZ, began restoring the church. After the Poles left, the work was continued by OÜ Wunibald Ehitus. 

The re-foundation of the Jaani congregation of the EELK (the Estonian Evangelic Lutheran Church). The first sermon held at Christmas, 1997. 

The church got a new spire, and two new bronze church bells were installed. 

The construction work was taken over by AS Ehitusfirma Rand ja Tuulberg, with the aim to complete the restoration of the church in December, 2004.    

An air-heating system of the church was installed, designed and made by a German company Mahr. 

In January, the first windows of the church were installed. The covering of the church floor with red floor bricks was started.