The Religious Heritage of Estonia

The Religious Heritage of Estonia

You might have heard of Estonia because of its digital state or schools having effortlessly gone online during the pandemic.[1] But do you know where exactly this small Baltic state is located? Can you name a single church in Estonia? Probably not. The last questions can prove difficult for the locals as well since Estonia is regarded as one of the least religious countries in Europe. However, the country has a rich and varied religious heritage.

According to statistics, there are up to 500 extant churches in Estonia and around half of these are listed as national monuments. These range from tiny medieval rural parish churches to large Gothic Revival city churches, from simple Baptist prayer halls to grand Orthodox cathedrals. There are only a few Modernist churches: due to historical and political reasons these date from either the very beginning or the very end of the 20th century. The state of historical church buildings can vary from barely visible ruins to properly functional edifices by modern standards.

However, an average Estonian church would be a Lutheran parish church in a rural area with a shrinking population. The stone building of medieval origin would have started as a Catholic church and been converted into a Protestant one during the Reformation of the 16th century. Its congregation would have grown so numerous by the mid-19th century that the church would not be able to hold it,  just to have it diminish into a handful of old women by the beginning of the 21st century, for whom even this would be large for Sunday services.

One example of such a church is in Koeru in the middle of Estonia. The typical Gothic hall church with a bell tower has been a landmark of the village since the 13th century. The once colourful interior has gradually become soberly grey and even its Baroque furnishings have been overpainted in brown hues. The mighty organ loft and the added balconies from the 1880s remind of the better days of the congregation which has reduced to about ten people attending the regular Sunday service.

In this somewhat gloomy situation, the National Heritage Board commissioned a study of the historical colour schemes of the interior in 2011. The preliminary works carried out with the help of the conservation students of the Estonian Academy of Arts proved promising –medieval decorative murals were discovered under the later paint layers. It took some years and an enthusiastic young deacon to convince the local community and politicians to consider the conservation of this church an investment rather than just another burden on the budget.

The work has not yet been completed, but it has already paid off in publicity and greatly increased visitor numbers, even in the current situation where hardly any travelling is possible. More importantly, the local community has re-learnt to value and be proud of its heritage. The conservation work has been done in public without closing the church. On the contrary: tours have been organised throughout the process and people invited to take a closer look. Have the numbers of worshippers gone up? Well … no. But the church has gained a lot of new friends who would come there more than just once.

Another way of making religious heritage visible for larger audiences is to literally bring it closer to the public. A good example of such an approach in Estonia sprung from the conservation work of the 17th-century altar retable of the Lutheran Cathedral of Tallinn in 2016/17. The students and professors of the Estonian Academy of Arts designed the scaffolding for it as a work of art which enabled the church to continue services at the main altar. This scaffolding was also built in a way that guided visitors could be taken to the top of the retable for the close-up view of the sculptures by Christian Ackermann, the most talented woodcarver of the Baroque era in Estonia. This proved hugely popular: over 3000 people climbed the 8-metre high scaffolding over 11 months – and the conservation work got done as well.

This experience led to a larger research project on the oeuvre of this sculptor which culminates right now in an exhibition of his works in Niguliste Museum in Tallinn (open from 6 November). Sixty figures of the altar retables and pulpits from twenty mainly rural parish churches are temporarily brought together and displayed to the public at close-up. At the same time, their wider religious and artistic context is shown and explained. This provides the opportunity for people who would not normally go to church to learn about religious heritage in the museum setting. However, one of the main goals of the exhibition is to highlight these treasures for the local communities.

The church in Koeru will probably gain even more appreciative visitors when the crucifix which has been cleaned of later overpaint to expose its original rich polychrome finishing goes back to its home church after the exhibition. The hopes are high that the same would happen to other churches from where the exhibits come from. After all, for allegedly one of the least religious nations in Europe these are small but important steps in the growing appreciation of the rich religious heritage of Estonia.

Anneli Randla


[1] See e.g.

Cover Photo: Medieval rural parish church in Koeru, Estonia. © Peeter Säre
Photo 1: Religious Characteristics of States, 2015
Photo 2: Students and teachers of the Estonian Academy of Arts during conservation work of medieval decorative murals in Koeru church. © Peeter Säre
Picture 3: The exhibition of the work by Christian Ackermann on temporary loan from the parish churches in Niguliste Museum. Photo © Art Museum of Estonia.

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