St. John's Church to celebrate long-awaited return

  • 2005-05-11
  • By Steve Roman
TARTU - It had been a derelict, burnt-out wreck since the end of World War II - an ugly scar in the center of Tartu's Old Town. Bombing and subsequent fire had destroyed the roof and the top of the tower. After one interior wall collapsed in 1952, officials were seriously considering tearing down what remained of the 14th-century Jaani Kirik (St. John's Church). It was only thanks to an outcry at the time by art historians in Moscow that the structure, along with the last of its famed terracotta sculptures, was given a reprieve.

Now, thanks to 16 years of painstaking restoration work, this Tartu landmark is about to be returned to its position of glory. On June 29, the St. John's Church will celebrate its grand re-opening - the culmination of a restoration project that began in 1989.

Since May 3, visitors have been allowed to drop into the church to take a peek. What they find is something quite different from the elaborately decorated, somewhat ostentatious, medieval churches of Tallinn. Here the interior is just as vast but more humble, lined with red brick rather than white plaster - traditionally considered more majestic in cathedral architecture. And instead of woodwork or oil paintings, the church is decorated with scores of the terracotta (burnt clay) figures for which it is famous.

It's these figures that make the St. John's Church unique in Europe, according to Eve Alttoa, the conservator in charge of restoring them. Only an approximate 1,000 of the original 2,000 relics remain. Not only is their sheer number unusual, but they also reflect a high degree of artistry, she notes.

"It's unique in the sense of how they were made. It must have taken some very gifted person who could fire these things to make them look so real," Alttoa says.

The most prominent of the sculptures is the life-sized crucifix that will be placed on the triumphal arch, and the life-sized figures of Mary and St. John that will flank it. It's doubtful, however, that these will be ready by the June 29 opening. Indeed, only about 200 of the 1,000 figures have been restored. The long process of desalination and restoration is still ongoing, and understandably. For conservation purposes, figures that line the outside of the church are being replaced by copies, while the originals are moved to the church's interior. The entire procedure is expected to take up to 10 more years. But when one considers just how long these works of art have survived, a decade of cosmetic surgery seems deserving.

Though visitors will still find many empty niches where they expected to see figurines, there are enough figures present to demonstrate the mystery that surrounds this ancient collection. While some of the sculptures traditionally represent holy saints, others depict fantasy animals such as dragons. Most of the figures, however, are of completely unknown people.

"It's very unusual. You have about 600 that are just heads and faces, let's say, and they are all very different. Some are wearing crowns and some are very simple without any. There are some who have caps and different haircuts. It's very difficult to explain why they are there and what the meaning of it all is," says Alttoa.

While the identity of the subjects may never be known, there's some speculation that they were townspeople from the time the church was completed in its present form during the third quarter of the 14th century.

This brings up another mystery 's the age of the church. The first mention that a church existed on this spot was in 1323. But during restoration work in the 1990s, fragments of a late-12th- or early-13th-century wooden structure were discovered at the site. If this was indeed an earlier church, as historians believe, that would make it the only Christian church site known to have existed in Estonia before foreigners conquered and Christianized the area in the 13th century.

It was almost by a series of historic flukes that the church managed to survive until now. Like that of the town, the church's history after the 15th century was a series of disasters. In 1708, during the Northern War, the upper part of the steeple was destroyed and collapsed onto the central nave. Yet, the building has inspirational stories as well. In the second half of the 18th century the church was restored, and it even managed to escape the fire that wiped out most of the town in 1775.

Ironically, it was the church's own congregation that did the most damage to its sculptures. When Tartu was under reconstruction in the early 19th century, neoclassicism was in vogue. During refurbishment in the 1820s and '30s, the fashion was to have clean, smooth, white walls. The sculptures had to go.

"That may be the most destructive event in the church's history. The medieval sculptures that were in the recesses were plastered over, but the sculptures that were standing out from the walls were just knocked down," says Alttoa.

Oftentimes, elderly Germans who lived in Tartu before 1940 visit the cathedral and remark that they don't remember seeing so many sculptures. Alttoa has to explain that they were hidden by plaster at the time, and that restoration has helped the church resemble its appearance from medieval times, more than its pre-war style.

Alttoa believes that the younger, post-Soviet generation sees the church in an entirely different light; as a symbol of recent accomplishment.

"Estonia is not very rich, and when you are young and poor it's very difficult to keep your monuments in good condition," she explains. "It was just in ruins during Soviet times, and then the [newly independent] Estonian Republic started the restoration work. I think that many people are proud that the church is finally restored. I mean, that is the most important feeling for many of them."