Mikulska, Jana and Baiba Ekere, “Religious heritage in danger in Latvia, Gaiku Lutheran Church”

Gaiku Lutheran Church, Kurland, Latvia

This year Gaiku Church celebrates 355 years of existence. The church was built on a natural hill in 1658. That kind of elongated building with a narrowed apse and sacristy attached is the traditional example of the sacred architecture of 17th century in Kurland, Latvia. Masonry construction of the church was organized by local German feudal G. von Hoerner (buried in the crypt beneath the church), who commanded to build a church with 210 seats. In 1684 a tower was added to the building’s main façade, its pyramidal roof was concluded by a sphere, a tower cock and a cross.

The particular value of the church lies in its interior and equipment: it is the exclusive church in Latvia with rare altar composition and the organ loft, painted richly, and symbolic and emblematic paintings selected for the benches as well. One of the most original and artistically most valuable monument of the era of the Latvian Baroque, created during 1684, are 26 tempera paintings on panels of the church benches and small doors of the benches. The paintings depict the German church pastor Nicolaus Wittenburg’s theological sermon based on the compiled badge collection “Symbolorum et Emblematum” of the natural scientist and philologist Joachim Camerarius (1534-1598).

In the 2nd half of the 17th century a luxurious organ loft barrier was made, influenced by the Renaissance, with 16 paneled paintings of the apostles, Christ and the Evangelists. It is believed that the two-storey altar retable (the end of the 17th century) was made by Tallinn’s (Reval) master Kristian Akkerman’s workshop. The composition of retable represents a rare example in Latvia: two-story building put on the base with a wide central part with columns, but the figures are placed on consoles on both sides of the retable.

Drawings on the panels of the pulpit of the 17th century depict texts of the Gospel of St. John covering the pieces of text in German.

In a longer perspective we would like to see the Gaiku church well maintained, protected and highly valued in the public mind. To achieve this, the Gaiku church, which is an architectural monument of State protection, was included in the list of “100 most endangered cultural monuments in Latvia” at European Heritage Days 2004. The church is still performing its traditional functions, but as the years go by, it is losing its original brilliance.

The wooden roof construction is damaged, the tower is in a state of emergency, the tower cock is restored, but now placed inside the church, in turn, the unique paintings are in poor condition.

The research of the church’s facilities, performed in 2005, revealed that the retable’s original color was black, accentuating the wooden carvings in reddish brown and golden tone.

The congregation is very small, in spite of it, the work and enthusiasm of the church members is huge, but it is not enough for this small rural church to continue to stay for future generations.

By Jana Mikulska, B.hist.,
Baiba Ekere, M.phil.
2013