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St Nicholas, Tallinn: Medieval Art and Homeless Bells


Estonia's capital, Tallinn, is a city of many towers, some on churches and many on parts of the fortified defense wall that still surrounds most of the city's old town. One of the best-known and most visible is that of the 13th-century St Nicholas, or Niguliste, church.


It's also the best place for high-up views of the old and new parts of the city and out over the Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea, even though it's not the tallest available for viewing. But, unlike the even-taller St Olaf's church, it has an elevator to the viewing platform.


Of course, if you feel like climbing the 233 very steep steps of St Nicholas, you can do that, too. Start here...


Below the tower lies not a church, but a museum and concert space, a change that came about when the building was restored in work lasting from 1953 to 1981, when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. The building was heavily damages by Allied bombers while the city was occupied by German forces. The museum is a branch of the Art Museum of Estonia and also houses an unusual feature: a 'sanctuary for homeless bells.'


There's an irony to St Nicholas' status as a museum for religious art; in the early years of the Protestant Reformation, when iconoclasts were destroying images in many churches, the leaders of St Nicholas poured molten lead into their locks, thwarting a mob attempt to enter and destroy. It was nearly a hundred years later that St Nicholas became a Protestant church, and the wave of iconoclasm had passed.


Most of the displays in the museum are focused on medieval church art, saved from churches all over Estonia as well as from St Nicholas itself.


A major exhibit includes dozens of altar screens and tryptychs on religious themes that are displayed in the nave of the church.


This statue of St Christopher once carried the pulpit of St Nicholas on its back; the coasts of arms on the walls belong to various guilds of the city as well as some militia units over the centuries.


The elevator, and the Sanctuary for Homeless Bells, are the silver lining of a disaster; shortly after the church's rebuilding was completed, a fire damaged the roofs and destroyed the rebuilt spire. When it was rebuilt again, the elevator and viewing platform were added, opening earlier this year.

P1330512P1330515A medieval church bell, origin and date unknown, and a cemetery bell cast in Tallinn in 1848; an 1861 bell cast in St Petersburg for an Orthodox church

The five bells of St Nicholas were destroyed in the wartime bombing, and none were installed when the church was rebuilt. So, in the words of Tarmo Saaret, director of the museum, "Niguliste has always been a church without a bell. When the opportunity arose to open the tower to the public, there were a good number of these 'homeless bells' hanging  around in museum or private collections. So, we put a small selection of them on display here."

P1330518P1330520P1330526A cemetery bell of unknown date, a Moscow-cast church bell of 1873 that was donated to the Estonian Orthodox church by Tsar Alexander II and a Tallinn-cast bell from 1795

The 'Sanctuary' is a display hung on the inside walls of the tower, just below the viewing level; it can be reached from the elevator or by walking down one level. Along with the bells, there are other church artifacts, including a pair of wind indicators originally mounted on church steeples. The origin of the bird is unknown, but the 'flag' weathervane is from St Nicholas itself, installed in 1695.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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