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Reformation in Livonia

Since Emperor Constantine made Christianity as the main religion of Roman Empire this religion took its grip under Europe. Rome, previously a main enemy of Christian sect now was its main center. The Christian religion spread among the barbarian nations on the ruins of the old Roman Empire. However as every religion Christianity was vulnerable to inner quarrels and splits. The first great split was in 1054 when differences between churches in Rome and in Constantinople became so great that both sides made a split between the Catholic Church at Rome and Orthodox Church in Byzantium. This was western-eastern split.  In Medieval times Catholic Church made itself strong and significant. It was more or less independent from secular kingdoms and had its influence in every man’s life. The church had their own lands, their own treasury and supreme rights in European politics. Crusades were part of the Catholic Church quest for supremacy. However starting from the Medieval ages Catholic church started to become vulnerable itself from inner opposition. Protest movements were called heresies and eagerly attacked by the church. Most times heretics such as the Cathars, Free Spirit and Waldensians were crushed.

One of the first Reformation movements was Hussites in Bohemia (nowadays Czech Republic). Church killed their leader but that caused bloody wars against German Catholic rule.

In 15-16 century because of Renaissance and rise of need for more freedoms from the  Church a more bitter opposition started to take place. Its starting point was in Germany. Triggered by clergyman Martin Luther who objected the indulgences- Church practice which allowed repaying sins with money – a successful scam that made church filthy rich.  This caused a Europe wide stir and the Church tried to get rid of Luther, but this time he had support from German statesman Frederic III of Saxony and the church was unable to touch him. Inability to quell the rebellion made support for Luther and Reformation begun. The rise of Protestantism reached the shores of Livonia and affected it but not as bloody as in Germany, France or other places.

First Protestants came to Livonia from Germany. Andreass Knopken, Silvester Tegetmeier brought Protestant ideology to Riga. New movement got support from Riga Town Council and vassal curries. Catholic Church did not show enough resistance. At 1524 riots against Catholic Church took place as churches were demolished by protesters.  Monks and nuns were chased away from Riga. The church lost many real estates and riches. At the end Town council tried to stop the riots. The Livonian Order who should protect the Church was not interested in showing any serious action against the movement, the Order wanted to weaken its rival the Archbishop of Riga. Also the patron of the Order the Teutonic Order in Prussia was abolished and the Order was free from Germany. The order also desired to become a secular country rather than theocratic. However Wolther von Pletenberg the Master of the Order did not choose to do that, but he allowed freedom of belief in Riga Church lost its properties in Riga and Archbishop was exiled. Reformation then quickly came to other Livonian towns and finally in 1554 freedom of belief was imposed in all Livonia. Latvians who lived in towns also joined the movement. First Latvian congregations opened where ministration was taken in Latvian (Luther preached that ministrations can be taken in local language rather than Latin). This bought need for religious text translation in Latvian. First Lutheran Catechisms and sacral songs were translated into Latvian. This was a big step for Latvian writing and language as whole. Reformation also made first Latvian schools and need for Latvian priests. On the country side Reformation was not taken seriously by Latvian peasants. If the German landlord changed his beliefs then peasants also changed but they more practiced ancient pagan rituals than Christian beliefs. Paganism dominated the countryside to 18-19 century.

Reformation made victory in Livonia with ease because local German government wanted to be more independent from Germany and Rome and Germany itself had no real influence on Livonia. Therefore Latvia today is one of the strongest key points of Protestant movement.

After the  fall of Livonia new powers the Catholic Poles tried to make Contra-reformation. This was met by resistance and only region which was brought back to Catholicism was Latgalia. Now Lutheran Church is the main Church in Latvia. However Catholic Church holds influence in Latvia also. Surprisingly in today’s Latvia both Church shows unity and friendship. Latvia is also no stranger to other Christian movements like Baptism, Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists and other Christian sects. Latvia more or less has always been one of the freest places for multiple beliefs.

Selected Sources:

Feldmanis, Roberts. (2010) Latvijas baznīcas vēsture. Riga: Luterisma mantojuma fonds.

Spekke, Arnolds. (1995) Latvieši un Livonija 16. gs. Riga: Zinātne.

Klišāns, Valdis. (1992) Livonija 13.-16. gs. pirmajā pusē : mācību līdzeklis. Riga: Latvijas Universitāte

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Sacral Architecture of Medieval Riga

New Catholic Christian German government along with castles and fortifications built many churches to establish their power. Many them still remain in Riga and serves as the monuments of history. Some of the churches are important outside Europe for the church of Saint Peter was tallest tower in Europe for some time.

In old Medieval Riga which today is known as the Old Riga there were eight churches. First versions of these churches were built from wood so we don’t know how they looked like. All churches have many different building stages, so they don’t look monolith, for building time was long and plans changed many times.

First church of Riga was the Dome Cathedral. It was started in 1215. It was finished at 1300. in Romanesque style and Gothic style. Although it has no dome it was called Dome cathedral because Latvian and German name Doms meant cathedral.  Dome Cathedral was Catholic church until 16. century when in the event of Reformation it was given to Lutheran church. Cathedral interior got many Baroque and Classicism style upgrades during the years and today Cathedral is compilation of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Classicism.  In 20. century late thirties around the Cathedral government ordered to remove block of buildings to create new square. The square was called in honor of 1934. 15. May when Karlis Ulmanis came to power. In result the cathedral got its own square which its now called as the Dome square. Square is home to many festivities during the summer, it often serves as the place for political rallies. In summer its best place where to enjoy Latvian beer. One the notable cathedral landmarks are enormous pipe organs built in 1884. and were the largest pipe organs in the world at that time. Organs still works today. Cathedral is also used for academic concerts. During the 1991. January barricade movement cathedral was used as hospital.

Dome Catherdral from old postcard

The Large organs of Dome Cathedral

Near the Latvian Parliament there is church of Saint James. Church was first mentioned in 1225.  It was built in Gothic style. After the Reformation church became a Catholic Cathedral and the main center for Latvian Catholic church.

The tower of St. James church

St. Peters Church

St. Peters church was built as merchant church and first mentioned 1216. The church was built in large size and most largest component was its tower. But the tower was destroyed many times. In 1721. the tower was struck by lightning and caught fire. In rescue works Peter I The Great, Emperor of Russia  helped to extinguish burning tower. He was at Riga at the following moment.  In 1941. the tower was again bought down by German artillery shells. Tower was used as observing post for Soviets and was destroyed by Germans. But Germans themselves blamed Jews for the calamity and used this to justify the Holocaust. Church was in ruins for many years until in 1973. it was restored. In 2009. the Church Golden Rooster was bought down for repair works. It was done by skilled Alpinist’s.   Today tower is 123 meters high and is used as tourist attraction. From 70 meters tourists can view Riga from above.

The church of St. John is small beautiful with Gothic look and fine stained glass paintings.

The church St. John

In the Modern age near the old Medieval churches new ones were built. Church of Reformates  was built in 1732. Near the Dome Cathedral in 1785. the Church Our Lady of Suffering a fine Catholic church with magnificent interior. The most recent church is Anglican Church built in 1858. The Church has became notorious for fundamental Christians and homophobes, because the Church leaders openly supports same-sex marriages here.

The three tall towers of Riga Churches made essential Riga landmark. From opposite side of Daugava you can see these three churches as they dominate Riga skyline.

Modern era engraving showing all three Riga Church towers

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