Saint John's of Tartu Complex

Tartu, Estonia


St. John’s Church, known locally as Jaani kirik, is located in Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city, and dates from the fourteenth century. The building is a three-aisled basilica with a single west tower, an elongated choir, and a polygonal apse. In the absence of locally available stone, St. John’s Church was constructed in brick, a tradition introduced to southern Estonia from northern Germany. The interior and exterior of the building was adorned with terracotta, and originally incorporated more than a thousand unique blocks. Over the building’s long history and as a result of regional conflicts such as the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 and changing tastes in the neoclassical period, the church sustained damage and alterations. The church was mostly destroyed during World War II, and it remained in a ruined state while Estonia was a republic of the Soviet Union, until 1991.

How We Helped

In 1997 and 1998, WMF supported the conservation of the surviving terracotta blocks that used to mark the springing line on each of the four square piers of the north nave arcade. The blocks, some in pieces, had been salvaged after the arcade collapsed in 1952. They needed treatment before they could be incorporated in the reconstructed arcade. The conditions of each piece were carefully studied and documented by a small team of conservators and conservation students. The pieces were thoroughly cleaned to prepare for consolidation of the most friable material, and of surviving traces of historic paint. After consolidation, large cracks were patched and fragmented blocks were reconstituted. The blocks were installed in place, in some cases with the help of new armatures. After the construction of a new roof, the restoration project was completed and the church re-opened in the summer of 2005.

Why It Matters

St. John’s is one of Estonia’s most significant monuments, and perhaps no other medieval building in Europe could match its terracotta decoration in extent or quality. After its restoration, the church was returned to the Lutheran congregation that had disbanded during the Soviet era. The multi-year restoration effort served to set new standards for architectural conservation in the young Republic of Estonia. In addition, this project contributed to the training of Estonian terracotta conservators.

Last updated: June 2018.

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