The winged altarpiece of the high altar of St Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn is one of the most magnificent and best-preserved late medieval northern German retables in Europe. The altarpiece was commissioned from the workshop of the Lübeck master Hermen Rode and was made between 1478 and 1481. The retable of the high altar of St Nicholas’ Church is one of the largest in the 15th-century Hanseatic towns. When opened, its width is over six metres and the height almost three and a half metres. The altarpiece is a typical two-winged altarpiece resting on a predella. The pictorial programme can be varied by opening and closing the wings.
More than forty different saints and characters from the Bible are depicted in the work. Their choice reveals which saints were significant for the citizens of Tallinn in the late Middle Ages. The work of art cost 1250 Rigan marks. It would have been possible to build two or three stone houses in town for that money. In addition to donations from the congregation, it is thought to have been primarily financed by the Great Guild of Tallinn and the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, as the coats-of-arms of both associations are painted on the altarpiece in the closed and half-opened view.
The closed altarpiece
In the everyday, closed view of the altarpiece, we can see the three most important virgin saints on the left external wing: the Virgin Mary, St Catherine of Alexandria and St Barbara. At the feet of the three, the emblem of one of the main donors of the altarpiece, the Great Guild, is depicted; it is also the small coat-of-arms of Tallinn. The right external wing presents three male saints: the patron saint of the church, St Nicholas, is in the middle, and next to him are the patron saint of Tallinn, St Victor of Marseilles, and one of the patrons of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, St George. In front of them is the emblem of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, depicting the head of St Maurice, from whom the name of the association was derived.
The half-open altarpiece
The half-open position of the altarpiece presents scenes from the legends of the patron saint of the Church, St Nicholas, on the two left-hand wings, and the legends of the patron saint of Tallinn, St Victor of Marseilles, on the two right-hand wings.
The open altarpiece
The fully open, most festive view of the altarpiece presents two rows of gilded and polychrome sculptural figures of saints. Thirty-three large figures are lined up in order of their importance: the more important ones stand in the middle and in the upper row. In the centre of the upper row, Christ is blessing the crowned Virgin Mary. In the centre of the lower row, St Anne and the Virgin Mary are sitting together with the Christ Child.