St. Nicholas’ Church

St. Nicholas’ Church was one of the two parish churches in medieval Tallinn and one of the wealthiest churches in the town. Consecrated to the patron saint of merchants and seafarers, St. Nicholas, it is believed to have been founded in the middle of the 13th century.

The walls of the square-shaped 13th-century rectangular chancel are located underneath the present one. By the end of the century, a three-aisled nave, a sacristy on the north side of the chancel and the lower part of the western tower were added. Several chapels were built on the northern side of the church in the 14th century, including St. George’s Chapel, located on the site of the present North Hall, and the Small Chapel, which was linked to the northern aisle by two high arched openings. St Matthew’s Chapel was erected on the southern side of the tower.

A more thorough rebuilding of the church was undertaken in the 15th century. The construction work lasted from 1405 to 1420 and gave the chancel and the nave their current appearance. On the site of the old chancel, a new one was established, which was of the same width as the nave, had a polygonal apse and an ambulatory around it. The walls of the church aisles, as well as the nave, were made higher and the church was rebuilt as a basilica. From 1486 to 1493, St Matthew’s Chapel was fully rebuilt (renamed St Anthony’s Chapel in the 17th century), becoming a spacious room with a groined vault and a central pillar.

During the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas’ was one of the town’s most magnificent and beautiful churches. At the beginning of the 16th century, more than 20 side altars were located there. The glory of the Hanseatic times and the prosperity of the local merchants is expressed in its valuable works of art, commissioned from the large art centres of Europe. Among the most noteworthy ones are Bernt Notke’s Dance of Death and the magnificent retable of the high altar from the workshop of Hermen Rode, both works of Lübeck masters from the Late Middle Ages, which can still be viewed in the church. A seven-armed brass candelabrum, almost four metres high, donated to the church at the beginning of the 16th century, can still be admired in St. Nicholas’. It is one of the largest of its kind in the world.  

At the beginning of the 1520s, the first evangelical preachers reached Tallinn. The Reformation, started by Martin Luther, received the support of the local municipality at an early stage and the reorganisation of the ecclesiastical life was started. St. Nicholas’ Church became a Lutheran congregation church. In the middle of the 16th century, St. Nicholas’ Church received pews for the congregation in the Renaissance style, with a Lutheran pictorial programme, depicting characters from the Old and the New Testaments. In the mid 17th century, balconies for the congregation were commissioned for the church. The pulpit, donated in 1624, depicting scenes from the life of Christ, was among the most exquisite samples in Estonia. Epitaphs and coat-of-arms epitaphs were set on the walls to commemorate the wealthy citizens, noblemen and pastors buried in the church. During the 17th and 18th centuries, memorial chapels were erected on the northern side of the church, dedicated to Bogislaus von Rosen (1651), Gustav Adolf Clodt (1673) and Peter August von Holstein-Beck (1773). The Chapel of St. George was transformed into the North Hall.

The Second World War caused enormous destruction to St. Nicholas’ Church. As early as 1943, the evacuation of the valuable art works had begun, perhaps foreseeing the course of events. However, only a few of them were saved from the destruction of the war. During the bombing on 9 March 1944, the church was hit and almost everything that was left in the building was destroyed by fire. Therefore, the beautiful pews and balconies of the church are gone for good, along with the pulpit and several epitaphs.

The reconstruction of St. Nicholas’ Church started in 1953. In 1984, after nearly thirty years of restoration, the building, having been adjusted to the needs of a museum and a concert hall, was opened as a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia.