The Art Museum of Estonia’s collection of medieval and early modern ecclesiastical art is exhibited at the Niguliste Museum. The centrepieces of the collection are late-medieval altarpieces and wooden sculptures. The best-known work in the museum is the painting Danse Macabre from the workshop of Bernt Notke, a master from Lübeck. A 7.5-metre-long piece of the original work, completed at the end of the 15th century, has survived to the present day. One of the gems of the exhibition is the altarpiece of the high altar of St Nicholas’ Church, which was made in the workshop of Herman Rode, a master from Lübeck, and which arrived in Tallinn in 1481. This is one of the most magnificent and best preserved late medieval northern German altarpieces in Europe. The collection also includes three Netherlandish retables – the Passion altarpiece made in the workshop of the Brügge master Adriaen Isenbrandt, the altarpiece of the Virgin Mary of Tallinn’s Brotherhood of the Black Heads, which is attributed to the Master of the St. Lucia Legend, and the Holy Kinship altarpiece from Brussel’s workshop. In addition, there are altarpieces and sculptures from various Estonian churches.
A large part of the exhibition in the Niguliste Museum is dedicated to post-Reformation ecclesiastical art, the bulk of which is comprised of epitaphs and coats-of-arms epitaphs. A collection of historical church chandeliers is also on display. The majority of the chandeliers date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The oldest and rarest of these is a four-metre-high seven-armed candelabrum. This candelabrum was made in a Lübeck foundry and donated to St Nicholas’ Church in 1519. Over a hundred tombstones are also exhibited in the Niguliste Museum. The majority of these tombstones, from the 14th to 17th centuries, originate from St. Nicholas’ Church.
The silver chamber exhibits the finest of the collection of silver of the Art Museum of Estonia. The exposition in the former sacristy is divided into three parts: church silver, the silver of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads and the silver of the guilds and crafts. Such an extensive amount of guild silver has been preserved only in a few European cities.
The collection of church silver primarily contains liturgical vessels that originally belonged to St Nicholas’ Church. The seal of St Olaf’s Church of Tallinn from the 15th century is also a fascinating exhibit.
Most of the guild silver is from the St Canute’s Guild; however, objects initially belonging to the Great Guild and the Toompea Guild are also on exhibit. The magnificent high welcome cups of the trade guilds from the 17th and 18th centuries are the most eye-catching of the exhibits. Among the ceremonial objects are the mace of the alderman of the St Canute’s Guild, as well as an 18th century table bell with a rare, 15th century figure of a knight surrounded by a fence on top of it.
A separate showcase is dedicated to pendant shields. Traditionally, a craftsman who had become a master would donate a silver pendant shield to the guild of his speciality. On it there was his name, the date when he was declared a master and in most cases also the emblem of his craft. During festive ceremonies, the pendant shields were hung on the welcome cups.
The silver collection of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads includes objects from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The oldest is a popinjay with ruby eyes from the first half of the 16th century. It was a trophy awarded to the winner of the “popinjay shoot”, an archery contest which was popular in the Middle Ages. The majority of the Black Heads’ collection is formed by standing cups, tankards and beakers. Truly unique are the deer-foot-shaped standing cups found nowhere else but in Tallinn.