OF St. CATHERINE’S MONASTERY. In the Middle Ages two convents were located in the Old Town of Tallinn. The oldest of the two was St Catherine’s Monastery founded by the Dominican Order in 1246 and closed down in 1524. The first Dominicans arrived in Tallinn in 1229 and founded a monastery in the Big Fortress of Toompea.
It was destroyed in the disturbances of 1233. The new monastery was set up in Vene Street and it has partially survived. The monastery was built, as is typical of a Catholic cloister, as a closed-off block of buildings—all rooms necessary for everyday life were located in the wings encircling the square courtyard. The closed defensive nature of the cloister was in that case conditioned by the circumstance that at the time of its foundation the monastery was outside the town wall and only with the erection of Margrete Wall was it enclosed inside the town’s general defences.
The chief building in the complex was the 67.7-metre-long church which formed the south wing of the monastery and is now in ruins. The church was a three-aisled hall-church whose nave was twice as wide as its side aisles. In form the church had been strongly influenced by the ecclesiastical architecture of Visby, but due to square piers and characteristic ashlar details its spatial effect was typical of Tallinn. Under the chance!, which formed the building’s east end, was a four-aisled crypt. At the southeast corner of the church there rose a small bell-tower, a winding staircase in the tower led from the crypt to the chance! and onto the vaults of the church.
The round-headed windows of the crypt and the choir loft point to the fact that the building was erected originally in the 13th century.
The most outstanding parts of the partially preserved building are the west portals of the south aisle and the nave. The portal of the south aisle is plainer and its type is the older of the two. Like the north portal of the Holy Ghost Church it has no impost, instead the capitals of the three separate mouldings (shafts) of the three-step compound-arch portal blend into one belt. The carved ornamentation of the capitals—devil masks, a dragon, vine leaves, etc.—represent the so-called transitional style and date the portal to the end of the 13th century.
The work of an unknown master of Gotland, the so-called Fabulator, who worked about 1300, can be considered to have served as the model of the portal. The portal leading to the nave, which is one of the most outstanding portals in Tallinn, differs considerably from the previous one. The six shafts of the splay have been connected with an integral impost from which sharp-edged arch bands of the archivolt rise. The most interesting part of the portal is the sculptural ornamentation of the imposts. The imposts’ lower edges display a garland consisting of a three-lobed leaf, an oak spray and a vine tendril, then comes a separating round moulding and the upper parts of the imposts are covered with dynamic sculptural ornaments.
The northern impost depicts a running dog, the symbol of the Dominicans, 'our Lord’s dogs' (domini canus). In the Middle Ages a very widespread scene in Christian art, the so-called scene of the wild hunt, might have stood before it but has been destroyed by now. On the southern impost a row of the church’s dragons are walking with long strides, led by a lion at their head. Unlike the flat dragons on the capitals of the Great Guild House the dragons depicted here are roundplastic vigorous beings. The portal which was completed at the end of the 14th century served as a great example for the portals built in the 15th century.
As we know the monastery perished after the Reformation in the fire of 1531. Later part of it was restored, but in the course of centuries much went to rack and ruin.
The ambulatories on the west and east sides of the courtyard have survived (the eastern one is a two-storey structure) as well as a section of the south ambulatory. In the east wing of the building a number of rooms from the 15th and 16th centuries have been preserved. The most interesting among them are the chapter room and a small first-floor chapel. The last section of the monastery which was completed in the 1520s was the new refectory in the
north wing. Later in housed a school for centuries, in 1799 the room was transformed into a church for St Peter-and-Paul’s congregation. The refectory was demolished in 1841 and by 1845 a small three-aisled basilica with pseudo-Gothic interior and Classicist facade had been built on its site. The building was planned by the renowned architect of St Petersburg Carlo Rossi. The present fa~ade design of the church dates from the 1924 reconstruction. The fa~ade bears the motto:
HIC VERE EST DOMUS DEl ET PORTA COELI.
(‘Here is the veritable abode of God and the gates to Heaven’). The dates mark the construction stages:
AEDIFIC. MDCCCXLIV (Built in 1844), RENOV. MCMXXIV (Renovated in 1924).
Of the three bells hanging in the north tower of the church the oldest one was founded in 1801, the other two date from the year 1845. All of them were founded by Tallinn masters. In the interior of the church the figures of SS Peter and Paul have survived; they were made in the 19th century by the Tallinn-born sculptor Robert Johann Salemann, who later worked in St Petersburg. In Vene Street the old granary of the monastery has survived in a rebuilt form. Its building history should date back to the 14th century.
From the monastery’s once plentiful fittings only two altars have remained intact. The so-called Blackheads’ altar was mounted in the church in 1495. The big folding altar was made in the Netherlands and was painted by the anonymous author of St Lucy’s Legend. The small folding altar which depicts the Holy Family was made on commission of the monastery, after the Reformation it fell into the Town Council’s possession. In 1652 the altar was restored and handed over to St George’s Church. From the middle of the 19th century onwards the altar belonged to the Estonian Provincial Museum. Now both the altars are being preserved in the Estonian Art Museum.
In addition to these works of art some tombstones from the monastery church have partially or entirely survived. The most interesting and beautiful among them is Kunigunde Schotelmund’s tombstone from 1381.
Some forty books from the monastery’s one-time library have come down to us. The monastery was an outstanding educational centre in the town as early as the second half of the 13th century: an unofficial monastic school worked there and many brethren had been educated at foreign universities. In the course of centuries several Estonians belonged to the community of monks and some of them became members of the monastery’s leadership.