Romanesque, early Gothic and late Gothic churches were all present on the landscape of medieval Latvia. Many of them have survived wars and fires and still make their mark on the surroundings. Constructed from the twelfth century onwards and rebuilt throughout their history, medieval churches offer a standing testimony to the malleability of history, a reminder of the instability, permeability of meaning. Burned to the four walls and erected once again (Krimulda Church), rebuilt to suit the latest tastes already in the Middle Ages (St. Peter’s Church), or ruined to the four shattered walls, plaintively exposed against the blue waters of the Daugava River (Ikshkile Church) – these are just a few examples of the still beautiful monuments of sacred history which have the power to take the visitors back in time.
Gothic parish churches in Latvia provide examples of how space and shape are used in architecture to create an impression of sacred, but also of secular power. Built on the recently Christianised territory (the influential missionary, Meinhard von Segeberg, arrived to Livonia c. 1180), in the immediate proximity of the hostile, pagan tribes, these churches would have both inspired religious devotion and highlighted the secular power of their founders.
Krimulda Church, built in 1205 in the early Northern Gothic Style, is one of the earliest churches in Livonia which has been preserved in its original layout. By comparison, the famous St. Peter’s Church in Riga, first mentioned in 1209, originally constructed in the Romanesque style, was completely rebuilt in the fifteenth century in the High Gothic style. In turn, Krimulda Church was founded by the local chieftain Kaupo and priest Alebrand in the vicinity of Kaupo’s burned castle. Although the church has been altered over centuries, particularly after the heavy damage it received in 1613, it offers a unique early example of the Gothic style religious architecture in Livonia.
Krimulda Church is only one of the surviving churches that were built in medieval Livonia between 1200 and 1400. Other examples to be discussed in this comparative study are St. John’s Church in Cesis, and St. Simon’s Church in Valmiera. Albeit the dating of both churches is uncertain, both are near contemporaries, constructed in the Gothic style in the 1280s. St. Simon’s Church is mentioned in the Chronicon Livoniae, and the foundation of both churches is associated with Wilhelmus von Surborch, the master of the Livonian Order from 1282 to 1287.
These Gothic churches still offer religious services in the settings comparatively close to the original ones, offering opportunities for reconstructing the uses of space for liturgical purposes in the century after the building of the first stone church on the Latvian territory, Ikšķile Church, in 1185-86. Moreover, the churches offer both parallels and idiosyncrasies in the use of space and form when compared to Gothic churches elsewhere on the Continent, especially with reference to Lithuania, Poland and Germany, as well as in England.
The above note is based on my work in progress on the uses of space in medieval sacred and secular architecture on the territory of Latvia. You are very welcome to add your thoughts on the issue or your impression of Latvian medieval churches in the comments.