Tartu's historical church unveils new window, sparks controversy

  • 2000-02-10
  • By Virve Vihman
Jaani Kirik (St. John's Church) is as much a symbol of Tartu as the Town Hall or the University. The historica and artistic value of the church, built in the 14th century, inspires interest and awe far beyond the limits of the town or the country. Over a thousand terra cotta figures grace the walls of the church, a rare find in all of Europe, both for their quality and their number. The pieces are mostly faces and half-figures, each with its own personality.

However, the treasures of the church have been out of the sight of the general public for over half a century. The church burned down in 1944 during World War II, leaving only a shell of brick walls. Not until 1989, 45 years later, did restoration work begin.

For nearly 10 years, the "work in progress" sign seemed ironic, as no change was visible. But recently the restoration has gained momentum. Over the last year, Tartu's population has been delighted by the visible progress. Last summer, a new church tower was hoisted up. By Christmas, the tower had bells to ring. This year, plans for the church's stained glass windows were revealed amidst controversy and confusion.

Far-flung funding support

When restoration work began, the foundation needed strengthening, walls needed to be mended, and money was scarce. As a result, very little outward change was seen until 1997, when the church first received a new roof. That year, a Christmas service was held in the church for the first time in 50 years.

The church lies in the dead center of town, hidden from the distant gaze by downtown shops and a Khrushchev-era residential building marked for destruction at an unset date. Last summer, however, the raising of the church tower was a coup for resurrecting the symbolic status of the church, as the shining copper steeple is now visible across town, over the five-story buildings of the city center. The church steeple has seemed to set a donation snowball in motion. Last year, the restoration project received a total of about 600,000 kroons ($39,000) in donations.

The bell choir, Arsis, has donated concert proceedings amounting to 10,000 kroons to the church. Estonia's most prominent sculptor, Mati Karmin, gave an altar crucifix, a bronze sculpture 35 centimeters tall, nailed to a modern glass background.

Just before Christmas of 1999, the church received bells, made in a workshop in Germany. The North Elbe church congregation donated funds for the bells, and has pledged to raise 1.5 million kroons for the church restoration, in addition to assisting with advice.

However, financial difficulties continue to hold back the restoration process, and the uncertainty which haunts those involved in the restoration is slowing the gathering momentum. Roman Levin, chairman of the Tartu Jaani Kirik Foundation, has projected total costs at 55 million kroons. He has suggested taking a loan from the World Bank, in which case the restoration could be finished in a matter of three years.

Estonia's Department of Heritage Preservation has been giving five million kroons a year to Jaani Kirik's restoration works; last year this was one third of the department's budget. At this rate, the renovation could take eleven years, not taking rising costs into account. However, this year the Department gave only four million kroons. State funding will most likely continue to decrease, if not end altogether.

Eve Alttoa, in charge of the painstaking restoration of the terra cotta figures, says she would like to hire more help, in hopes of completing the vast project in the foreseeable future. But the uncertain funding makes hiring impossible. Since the money dribbles in, she can't be sure training a new person would not be in vain: five years' guaranteed funds would be needed to justify hiring a new assistant.

Shadow and light

As new bells rang out 1999, new windows are ringing in 2000, but the windows have caused a commotion.

Designs for a complete set of 39 stained glass windows were commissioned from Urmo Raus, an Estonian artist living in Paris. Raus, 30-years-old, has studied at art academies in both Tallinn and Paris; he has studied stained glass window design; and he has the support of French experts on the art and technology of stained glass church windows. He completed the designs and found French sponsors for an initial sample window.

As nothing is known of what the original windows looked like, restorers today have free hands regarding the new windows. Raus' designs are modern, simple and bold, with a veiled trace of medieval glasswork. They are intended to provide an atmosphere for meditation and prayer as well as an understated background against which the terra cotta figures, the true pride of the church, will stand out.

The windows are double-layered, and both layers of glass play a part in the overall effect, the outer window bearing an imprint in relief and the inner window bearing the color. Outlines of outstanding stained glass windows from cathedrals contemporary with Jaani Kirik in Western Europe are imprinted on the outer, colorless layer. The inner window is monochromatic, and echoes the shape of the outline in matted glass, allowing the light refracted from the outer glass to create shadows and shifting designs inside the church. The outlines pay tribute to the old while contributing something new, a 21st century design added to the medieval architectural monument.

In designing the windows, Raus has avoided both the notion of teaching the illiterate masses, nonexistent in Estonia as well as any attempt to mimic medieval styles in a pseudo-Gothic window design. The commonly held view that stained glass windows were the medieval comic strips of the illiterate poor is dismissed by Raus. "In the Middle Ages, churches were built by people for God, not for other people. And most of the windows were so high that the naked eye couldn't discern them."

Stained-glass standoff

Immediately after the unveiling of the trial window in late January, a handful of local artists criticized the designs, though many critics praised them. According to stained glass artists Heli Tuksam and Tuuli Puhvel, the design will defeat its own purpose, overwhelming the brick walls as well as the terra cotta figures. In addition to doubts as to why the windows should be made in France, local artists have expressed indignation over the fact that no open competition was held, to give Estonias' artists a fair chance.

It was the Department of Heritage Preservation who commissioned the designs from Raus, but it is the owner who is required by law to announce an open competition. The hitch? Jaani Kirik presently has no legal owner. Hence, there is no one to blame for this oversight. The Jaani congregation was the church's pre-war owner, and the legal steps needed to reestablish ownership are being taken.

Meanwhile, the future of the stained glass windows is left hanging. The city government and the Heritage Preservation Department have yet to decide the fate of the windows.

Urmo Raus has emphasized that the trial window should not be judged as a final version. The outer window, prepared at the Atelier Duchemin in Paris with up-to-the-minute laser technology to cut through the unusually thick 8mm glass, is in its finished form. But the inner window is a stand-in, made of plexiglass, and does not have the right color, nor does it achieve the correct light-and-shadow effects.

As for the windows being made in France, Raus remains staunch, insisting that for quality, durability and know-how, the French workshops have excelled for centuries in the craft, and that this level of expertise cannot be found in Estonia.

Raus also points out the European experts who have both applauded his designs and pledged to assist in fund-raising, once Tartu's city government gives the green light. Regarding the commission, Raus explains, "If a concert-master wants a soprano, he will invite the best soprano he can find, be it from Italy or England. He is the expert, and nobody would suggest that he should hold a competition to give local sopranos a chance." And what's more, Raus is Estonian.

He has taken the project to heart, and is currently compiling a CD-ROM on the church, with information on history, architectural details, and his glass designs.

The trial window has been boarded up to protect it from debris falling from construction work. When and how it will see the light again remains to be seen. While the rest of the church seeks funds to accelerate the restoration process, the stained glass project has channels to sponsorship ready, and awaits not funds but moral support from the city.