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Riga Saint Peter’s Church

Riga Saint Peter's Church
Riga Saint Peter’s Church. / Pamfilyalı, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

WorldBlue  In short

One of the symbols of Riga is Riga Saint Peter’s Church – a large Gothic church with an unusually tall spire in Baroque style. In the 15th century, it was even taller – one of the tallest structures in the world.

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GPS coordinates
56.9475 N 24.109 E
Location, address
Europe, Latvia, Vidzeme, Old Riga
Churches, Ghost sites
Name in Latvian
Rīgas Svētā Pētera baznīca
Architectural style
Gothic (the main part with roof), Baroque (tower and portal)
Year of construction
1209, 1408-1409, 1456-1491, 1671-1690, 1743-1746, 1954-1973
Branch of Christianity
Lutheran
Height
123.25 m
UNESCO World Heritage status
Located in "Historic Centre of Riga", 1997, No.852

Map of the site

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WorldYellow In detail

Old Riga from Saint Peter's Church
Old Riga from Saint Peter’s Church. / Bas Wallet, Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Towers of three medieval churches in Old Riga rise tall above all other structures: St. James’s Cathedral (91.64 m), Riga Cathedral (90 m), and Saint Peter’s Church (123.25 m). While the first has experienced fewer adventures throughout its long life, the two last church buildings have seen a lot: eternal competition among their congregations, repeated collapses of their supertall towers (both in the medieval times were taller), and war damages.

Now the towers of these churches together with a group of smaller church towers define the unique skyline of Old Riga.

History of Saint Peter’s Church

Traditionally Saint Peter’s Church has belonged to Riga City – the city of international trade. For centuries it competed with another major power – the Archbishopric. Archbishopric had Riga Cathedral and Riga City – Saint Peter’s Church, thus through the size and architecture of these buildings both powers competed.

Riga Saint Peter's Church, interior
Riga Saint Peter’s Church, interior / Gatis Pāvils, CC BY-SA 4.0
  • 1209 – the church was mentioned for the first time, most likely in this year it was built. This was a Romanesque structure from stone with a separate tower. It is not quite clear if this church was exactly in the same place where the contemporary church stands.
  • 1352 – first public clock on Riga installed in the tower.
  • 1408 – 1409 – significant extension. Constructed the semicircular part around the altar, current Gothic vaults. Builder – Johannes Rumeschotel. Further works were stopped by war and then – plague.
  • 1456 – 1491 – further extension and construction. In 1491 was completed a pyramidal tower that was 136 m tall – one of the tallest structures in the world.
  • 1524 – church was damaged during the riots by Lutherans. Altarpiece by Albrecht Dürer (1522) perished in flames. Catholics were expelled from the city and the church was transferred to Lutherans.
  • 1666 – lightning hit the tower on 11th March (unusual time of the year!) and the 136 m tall structure collapsed over the city, killing eight people.
  • 1671 – 1690 – the church was rebuilt. A new, 148 m tall, modern Baroque tower from wood was built and a beautiful facade added. This is one of the highest achievements of the prolific, skilled Baroque architect Rupert Bindenschu (1645–1698). The tower had unusual, openwork construction, disliked by some of the contemporaries who considered that now the skyline of Riga is damaged forever. Currently the silhouette of the tower is one of the unofficial symbols of Riga.
  • 1721 – lightning hit the tower again, church catched the fire and tower again collapsed.
  • 1743 – 1746 – tower was rebuiltand now it is not so tall: “only” 120.7 m. This was the tallest wooden construction in Europe.
  • 1767 – 1788 – the last student of J. S. Bach – Johann Gottfried Müthel – was the organist of the church.
Riga Saint Peter's Church after World War II
Riga Saint Peter’s Church after World War II. /
  • 29 June 1941 – church suffered heavily during the attack of German Army, the fire ravaged and caused the collapse of the tower and roof.
  • 1954 – 1973 – extensive restoration of the church. The tower was rebuilt. Metal constructions were used and now it is 123.25 m tall.

Description

Riga Saint Peter's Church from behind
Riga Saint Peter’s Church from behind / Gatis Pāvils, CC BY-SA 4.0

The main part of the church has retained its Gothic architecture. The ceiling with its Gothic arches is 30 m high and inside the church are tombs and crypts of once influential residents of Riga.

The tower of the church has elegant, daring structural solution of several cupolas placed above each other. Cupolas stand on the columns. It is possible that the architecture of the tower was influenced by the Baroque towers of several churches in Hamburg, especially St. Catherine’s Church.

Famous feature of the church is its weather vane in a form of a large gold-plated rooster. Since the 15th century there have been six such roosters and now there stands the seventh – exact copy of the pervious one. It is 2.1 m long and 1.53 m tall. The previous – sixth rooster (1690) is stored inside the church.

The main – western – facade was made from local limestone. It has three portals that were adorned with beautiful sculptures in Baroque style. These sculptures were made from white limestone from Gotland Island.

Riga Saint Peter's Church, the old rooster from 1690
The old rooster from 1690 / Gatis Pāvils, CC BY-SA 4.0

During the rebuilding in the 20th century there was installed an elevator in the church tower and tourists got a possibility to reach the observation platform at the height of 72 m. View across the enormous historical city is breathtaking.

Legend about the ghost of the Blue Guard

During the 18th century in Riga formed a voluntary guard of townspeople who guarded the city and influential citizens in it. This guard got a nickname – Blue Guard – and was deemed important enough to have their own crypt in Sant Peter’s Church (around 1743).

According to a legend on the night between 30th November and 1st December in the church appears a ghost – a deceased soldier of Blue Guard.

Riga Saint Peter's Church, sculpture in portal
Riga Saint Peter’s Church, sculpture in portal / Gatis Pāvils, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sometimes during the late 18th or early 19th century a group of young people decided to refute this legend – to sneak into the church at this night and drive a nail at the altar as a sign of their presence.

Two guys got inside the church, others stayed outside. Soon after desperate screams were heard from the church and one of the youths run out of the church. Others went inside and found that the other young man was hanged on the nail. According to the story of the survivor, they were attacked by a terrible-looking soldier. The legendary nail was seen next to the altar until the late 19th century.

References
  1. Vēsture, the official site of the Riga Saint Peter’s Church Management Board. Accessed on February 10, 2022.
  2. Ruperts Bindenšū, Latvijas mākslas vēsture. Accessed on February 10, 2022.
  3. Leģenda jeb spoku stāsts par Zilās Gvardes kareivja rēgu Svētā Andreja naktī, Melngalvju nams. Accessed on February 10, 2022.

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