Monthly Archives: October 2009

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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The Medieval Riga

Rigas zimog 1226

The Seal of Riga in 1226

Riga was founded in 1201 when Bishop Albert settled there. Before him there were native villages inhabited by Livonians and Latgallians. And there was a settlement of the German Merchants who chose this place as their trading base. Bishop Albert chose this site as the base of operations for his Crusader campaign. Riga had a crucial role in the Crusades. From Riga Crusader armies marched at all directions in Latvian lands, conquering Courland, Semigallia, Latgallia, Selonia and Vidzeme. Native armies tried to capture the strong-point, but all failed and Riga withstood as the main Crusader capitol. Since then Riga located at middle of Latvia has become as the main center of Latvia. It’s been called the “water-head”” of Latvia since Riga has all services for workers, and all national administration is located there. Other smaller towns except Daugavpils or Liepaja could not offer what Riga has, so in the past decades Riga has been inhabited in large masses by country people.

The beginnings of Riga where at the right side of the river Daugava, where distributary of Riga Speķupe (The Ham River), blocked at Kube hills took the circle to Daugava. This distributary was called Riga or Rīdziņa. Near the entry in river Daugava, river Riga made extension called the Lake of Riga. There was the first port of Riga. Another distributary of Daugava near Riga is Sarkandaugava (Red Daugava), or the Punishment Ditch.

Near Riga there are three big entries of rivers Daugava, Lielupe and Gauja. Near Riga there are some large lakes like lake of Babīte, lake Ķīšezers, lake of Jugla.

During the springtime floods Riga was endangered, because the entry of river Daugava was full of sand reefs and Riga was located at just 4 meters above the sea level.  Many disastrous floods had been recorded in 1363, 1562, 1578 and 1590. In 16 century river Daugava changed its entry in Vecāķi but then in 17th century it broke the dune walls and found the straightest way to sea. River Riga also had trouble; it slowly became contaminated by city garbage and the buildings of dams in order to prevent floods which closed the water flow from Speķupe to river Riga. Because of the wall building river Riga was completely closed from Speķupe and became as standing water reservoir.  Since it was polluted it was levelled in 18.-19 century and today where river Riga once flow there is streets and buildings.

Based on this all Riga had ideal position for trade, administration and it was the main key of the Baltic Region. It never lost its strategic importance at all times.

First years of Riga were turbulent for it was many times attacked by native forces. Most dangerous were attacked by Curonians from the sea in 1210.  But all attacks were repulsed and Riga was the main base of operations for the Crusaders. In 1221 Riga was almost taken by the Danes when Bishop Albert was forced to become vassal of Danish King Waldemar II. But that was met by heavy resistance from local citizens who did not allow Danish kings envoy Gotshalk to enter Riga. But in 1223 Waldemar II was held captive by vassal and Denmark lost its concessions in Baltic lands.

After that the main civil government of Riga became the Town Council or rāte. The town Council consisted of 12 consuls or Town Councilors, later the number added to the 20 Town Councilors. Town Council existed until 19 century eighties when it was reformed by the Russian Imperial Administration.   Town Council was elected by Town Assembly, but in 13 century the Town Council elected themselves and Town Assembly was used for decorative purposes.   The four main Town Councilors where Burgomasters one of them where Higher Burgomaster who run the Town Council. He was something like Major of Riga these days.

The town Council managed all aspects of Riga, the ruling, organizing, and justice as well as commanding of the armed forces. In 1226 Riga got first Coat of Arms. Walls, gates and two towers symbolized the stability of the city, but keys of St. Peter meant that the town is in the protection of Curry of Rome, and Cross in the middle showed that the town is under the Bishop’s official rule. Coat of Arms changed many times due to the changing powers that ruled the town.

Town Council had a constant struggle with two seniors the Bishop and the Order.  Bishop and Order were in struggle themselves too, the war between then affected Riga. In 1297 the constant tension evolved into full scale conflict- it started as a dispute over a bridge over Daugava, which were made to build dams. Order demolished the bridge to let some of their ships pass. This caused the conflict which made half of Riga burn to ashes and Order’s castle was captured by locals. The castle was destroyed, but the Order was far from giving up. Order prevented the counter coalition of Bishoprics of Riga, Dorpat and Ōsel-Weik capturing Archbishop of   Riga and started the blockade of Riga. Riga was forced to sign alliance with pagan Lithuania. First alliance was successful; the castle near Cesis the Windmill of Bethold was destroyed. But then near Bukulti Order received reinforcements from Prussia and crushed the Riga-Lithuanian army. At the end the Hanseatic League forced to sign a peace agreement. The consensus was acquired by the Archbishop of Lund on 1304 March 21. The order must have its lost possessions back, the wall must be built to separate Order’s castle and Riga, the Order could not make new fortifications, the town could build the bridge over river Riga, but cannot disrupt the Order’s sea vessel movement, and both sides must not disrupt each others trading. Order bought the Daugavgriva monastery and turned into a fortress. That was vital gain for the Order.

Order gained victory, but did bother to note peace terms. They confiscated Riga trade ships and attacked the traders. Riga tried to gain Lithuanian help, complained to Rome, but nothing worked. The war erupted again in 1316 and the fortress of Daugavgriva was under siege.   But Order outmatched again by paying large sums of money to the Pope and Daugavgriva was declared as “eternal possession of Order”. In 1328 war again gained its height as the Daugavgriva was attacked again.  Lithuania was asked for help and they came, but Order captured the four Archbishops castles in advance and gained support from Prussia. In 1329  the siege of Riga had begun. It lasted a half of the year. 1330 March 20 Riga was forced to surrender. To humiliate the defenders of Riga, they were ordered to cut a hole into the city wall so the knights of the Order can go through there besides the main gate. Now Order had gained full control of Riga and the city became the town of Order. The Coat of Arms changed adding Crusaders Cross and Lion into gate of Riga.


The Seal of Riga after victory of Livonian Order

Riga grew rapidly despite the wars. The stories of most significant Medieval foundations in Riga will follow in future posts.

Selected Sources

Zeids, Teodors (Ed.) (1978). Feodālā Rīga. Riga: Latvijas PSR Zinātņu akadēmija. Vēstures institūts.

Šterns, Indriķis. (1997) Latvijas vēsture, 1290-1500. Riga: Daugava

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