The Three-Handed Mother of God’s courtyard

Laboratooriumi Street runs along the still intact city wall in the northern part of Tallinn’s Old Town. On one side there is the wall, and on the other, small houses dating from the Middle Ages to the Eclectic period.

Opposite the Plate Tower, built around 1410, there is a medieval merchant’s house, with a large arched gate. I open it. At the end of the long, dark entryway, the sunny rectangle of the inner courtyard. In the middle of the courtyard, a tall, strong, white-bearded starets is sawing a plank on a planer, surrounded by four or five little boys. A small dog catches glimpse of me, and runs toward me with a furious bark. I calm it down, and the starets also commands it back.

“Good afternoon”, I say in Russian. “I am from Hungary.”

“Ну, такой бывает, such things happen”, he nods with a smile, and with a questioning look he is waiting for the sequel.

“I recently wrote about the icon of the Three-Handed Mother of God, and now I see that it has its own church here in Tallinn. I would like to visit it.”

“Well, it’s closed now”, he says. “But come tomorrow to the nine o’clock service.”

“At that time I won’t be in Tallinn anymore”, I explain.

“That’s too bad. Our priest is not here, and only he can let you in the church. But at least look around.”

First I examine the installation along the long side of the courtyard. On a large stand, there are seven large icons of saints, with a double-sized one of Archangel Michael at the end. Above them, a Latin quote from Plautus: A good man is given good, a bad one gets what he deserves. Under the icons of the seven saints, the names of the seven virtues can be read also in Latin. The presence of Latin is strange here, in the courtyard of an Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, but the seven principal virtues and vices are even more so, as they were developed in Catholic theology after the Great Schism of 1054, as is known from the basic literature, Carla Casagrande’s The seven principal sins, which was edited by me in 2011 for Europa Publishing.

Anatoli turns the bicycle wheel attached to the lower left edge of the stand. A rumble begins, a wooden carriage pulled by the devil starts moving slowly on the rails below the icons, with dreaded figures among the flames painted on it, straight into the mouth of the huge hell dragon snapping its jaws at the left end of the track. At the far end of the rail, a ship rudder rotates and jingles, with the Latin names of the seven principal sins on it.

Meanwhile, the icons open one by one like medieval Catholic winged altars. First, the principal sin contrary to the given virtue is revealed behind it, not in the shape of an Orthodox icon, but in a medieval Viking-Celtic style. Then it opens, too, and in the box behind it, as on a small stage, moving wooden figures and folding painted boards tell a twisted story of the given sin and virtue. These are not simple personal temptation-fall-conversion stories, like in medieval legends. Each story is about a person sinning against nature in some way, by greed, arrogance or envy extorting and destroying the created world. The stories end with someone praying for him, so he comes to his senses and demolishes the destructive factory, closes the large-scale breeding farm that destroys animals, stops oil pollution, and so on.

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“We usually teach the kids with it. And with other figures as well”, he says, and tells the story of the little wooden horse which brings the torn family together.

I enthusiastically praise his creativity, specially mentioning some details. “Do you draw, too?” he asks. I nod. From now on, he presents me to the others as an иконописец, icon painter.

“Come, have a look at our workshops.”

The flats of the medieval house along the other long side of the courtyard are occupied on two levels by workshops: a paper-maker, a printing house and a scriptorium. Estonian and Ukrainian volunteers work here, hold courses, make postcards, booklets, publications. Now I realize that I saw their booth at Sunday’s fair.

 Training in the Labora workshops. Video by Roman Dragunov

The most sophisticated products of the workshops are some books that are all handmade, from the paper to the calligraphy and the illustrations to the cover. I am shown one about the wildlife of Estonia. A copy of it was sent as a gift to Pope Francis and it is now kept in the Vatican Library.

Another was sent to him about the Galician Hutsuls as well, to whom, judging by his references, Anatoli also belongs. The calligrapher girl from Lemberg is going to show me a third one about the history of the Ukraine, but just then, Anatoli comes to announce that the priest has come, and he opens the church for me.

The church is located in a medieval warehouse facing the street. It is closed to the outside, with only three arched windows facing the courtyard. The wooden iconostasis is also adorned with Anatoli’s icons, including the Three-Handed Mother of God.

“The Three-Handed Mother of God is the patron of the innocent abused, and who is more innocently abused today, if not nature?”, says Anatoli, explaining the iconography of the painted saints. They include both Orthodox and Catholic saints: St. Laurus and Florus, patron saints of horses, St. Francis of Assisi with the wolf of Gubbio, and St. Nicholas, who is not only the protector of fishermen, but also of fish.

The protection of nature is beyond the horizon of traditional Judeo-Christian thought. Man’s duty from creation is “to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen 1:26). “And ruling means power”, comments the 1st-century Epistle of Barnabas: “whoever rules, commands”. In the traditional Christian conception, the whole of nature is merely of resource that God has created for the use of man, in inexhaustible abundance. It is therefore very sympathetic that the horizon here is expanded, and nature becomes our suffering brother – “the whole of creation has been moaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time”, writes St. Paul to the Romans –, for which we are responsible.

The other pleasant expansion of the horizon is that the universality of Christianity is taken seriously here. Wherever I go in the East, the Orthodox clergy everywhere despises Western Christians as heretics. Here however, Catholic saints are also lined up, and the Latin language also finds a place. A fragment of a pseudo-icon is painted on one of the doors, displaying the names of the foundations Kirche in Not, Bonifatiuswerk and Renovabis, which have supported Eastern Christians for more than seven decades. On another door, a large icon, which was also brought to the Sunday fair, with a portrait of St. Hildegard of Bingen, surrounded by her companions, the herbs and trees she wrote about, and the animals living among them.

We go back to the courtyard. Anatoli puts me to work like a colleague to hold a board, a huge angel icon is being made. “We have a tower on this street, we are arranging it for a Virgin Mary’s chapel. Don’t you have time tomorrow morning?” “Unfortunately, my flight leaves early”, I remind him. “OK, then next time you come here. С Богом, walk with God,” he gives hand.


sabishisa o toote kurenu ka kiri hitoha
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)
  Won’t you come and see
loneliness? Only one leaf
from the kiri tree

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Dragons in Tallinn

We have already seen that medieval Europe was invaded by crocodiles, which the natives, for lack of a better idea, called dragons. However, these heat-loving animals did not aspire further north than the Mediterranean and Central European regions. The Baltics were invaded by real dragons. But while the crocodiles regularly left their teeth, other bones, and especially their skins in the places they inhabited, nothing of the Baltic dragons survived.

True, some charlatans come up again and again with intact dragon skeletons.

But this is a huge fake. After all, we know full well that the dragon has no skeleton. It is held together by the inner fire, and when it goes out, the dragon fades without a trace. So if we don’t find a dragon skeleton in a place, it’s a clear indication of the former presence of dragons.

How do we know then if dragons lived somewhere for sure? Well, from the multitude of local representations of the period. Just as natural scientists reconstruct the fauna of the Atlantic coast fifty thousand years ago from the animal depictions in cave drawings, so can we reconstruct the dragonography of medieval Tallinn, then known as Reval, from the surviving depictions.

The earliest Reval dragon depiction is left to us on a Romanesque relief found in 1934 when the medieval house at 11 Viru Street was demolished. Today it stands in the cloister of the former Dominican monastery. The house was from the 15th century, but the carving was used in it as a building stone, thus it must have displayed its original pattern in a much older house. It was probably a double-window divider, so the dragons carved on it were visible both from the right and left: with one head on one side, and with three heads as well as with a dragon-headed tail on the other.

From the mouths of the dragons, a tree of life in the form of a leafy and fruity vine sprouts out. This, along with the fact that they looked outward at the window divider, thus protecting the house, suggests the guardian and wealth-providing function of the early dragons. The 11th-century Hamburg chronicler Adam of Bremen, who sailed the Baltic Sea on ships of Viking princes, mentions in his Gesta that the pagan people of the Aesti kept snakes as protectors in their homes, and offered sacrifices – sometimes human sacrifices – to the winged snakes, for the safety and wealth of the tribe.

However, the style of the carving is typical of 12th-c. Norman art, just like this Sicilian Norman carving depicting animals grazing around a tree of life in the Agrigento Museum.

The divider with the dragon also has a pair, which shows a lonely tree of life. When it was discovered in 1934, it became widely known as Tallinn’s oldest carving, and it also inspired the Art Deco wrought iron gate of a medieval house at the beginning of Vene Street.

The second oldest known dragon depiction is also associated with the Dominican monastery. The gate of the monastery’s 13th-century St. Catherine Church is adorned with a dragon frieze on the right and a largely worn frieze on the left, where only the figure of a running dog was left intact.

To interpret the depiction, we need to know that the Dominicans came to Reval as part of the so-called “Northern Crusades”. In the late 1100s, the Baltic peoples were still largely pagan, but they lived along important trade routes leading to the principality of Novgorod and thus promised great wealth. The merchants and knights of the northern German cities therefore applied for papal bulls calling for a crusade, and in the early 13th century they gradually conquered the Baltic. Local peoples were baptized, and parishes and monasteries were established among them to strengthen them in the new religion. In Reval, the most important monastic order were the Dominicans, sent in 1246 by the Danish Queen Margaret Sambiria, who donated a large estate in the lower town of Reval to them.

Entrance of the Dominican monastery complex in Vene Street

Cloister of the medieval monastery. To the left, in the place of the medieval refectory, the wall of the early 19th-c. Catholic church

Entrance to the medieval monastery (today a museum)

The most important local task of the Dominicans as Ordo Praedicatorum, the order of preachers, was the conversion of the pagan Estonians. The two friezes of the gate may be an indication of it. Seen liturgically, from the side of the sanctuary, that is, from the viewpoint of the invisible Christ, the left – that is, negative – frieze shows the “winged snakes” revered by the pagans, while the right – positive – one the hounds running against them, the Domini canes, the hounds of the Lord, as the dominicani, the heretic-persecuting Dominicans preferred to portray themselves.

In later centuries – when paganism was a mere memory –, the Dominicans were considered the priests of the simple folks, the merchants and artisans of Reval’s lower town, as opposed to the cathedral chapter of the castle district of Toompea, the nobles living there, and their order of knights, the Livonian Brothers of the Sword. They also came into conflict several times over the Dominicans breaking the privileges of the chapter by opening a school for the children of the lower town. As a counterweight to the Brothers of the Sword, their church housed their own armed merchant company, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, made up of unmarried merchants who mimicked the knights by organizing knightly tournaments and maintained their own altar in St. Catherine’s Church. Their 14th-century brotherhood house still stands near the main square, and its façades are depicted with reliefs, especially of the proud self-image of young merchants dressed in knightly armor.

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The Brotherhood of the Blackheads was named after their patron saint, St. Maurice, the dark-skinned commander of the 3rd-century Legion of Thebes, who, along with his entirely Christian legion, were martyred under Emperor Maximian at the site of today’s Swiss abbey of St-Maurice. According to their tradition, the brotherhood was born during the uprising of the pagan Estonians in 1343-1345, which was defeated by the founding German merchants. Their 15th-century winged altar, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is among the few medieval altars that survived the iconoclasm of the protestants. Today it is put on display in the church of St. Nicholas, which has been transformed into a museum.

Altar of the Holy Virgin of the Blackheads. From the Master of the St. Lucy Legend from Bruges, before 1493. Closed wings: the Annunciation

The first open state of the altar: the so-called Double Intercession: Christ, sacrificed on the cross, and the Holy Virgin behind Him, are pleading with the Father for the members of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads

Faces from medieval Reval: the members of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads

The second open state of the altar: the Holy Virgin with Jesus, St. George and St. Victor, and on the two side wings, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Gertrude of Nivelles

In 1525, the Dominicans were exiled by the Lutheran city council. Their church was given to the Undeutsch, i.e. the Estonian-speaking Lutheran community, and their monastery was converted into a school. Both burned down in 1531, and have been in ruins ever since. Concerts are occasionally organized in the remainder of the church, while the cloister of the monatery is a museum. In 1799, the Tsar’s governor of the city, the black Abraham Hannibal – Pushkin’s great-grandfather – authorized the construction of a Catholic church for his Catholic – Polish and Lithuanian – soldiers in the place of the former refectory, designed by St. Peterburg’s famous architect, Carlo Rossi. This is today Tallinn’s Catholic center. Along with the surviving side wall of St. Catherine’s Church runs Catherine Alley, Tallinn’s most romantic street, full of little shops and cafés.

The early 19th-c. Catholic church

Façade of the medieval St. Catherine’s Church, with Catherine Alley to the right

With the faltering of the positions of the Catholic church, the dragons of Tallinn moved to a civil environment. Their earliest hiding place was the Great Guild, the meeting place of Reval’s merchants’ and craftmen’s guilds, today’s Estonian Historian Museum in Pikk – i.e. Long – Street, on the side opposite the House of the Blackheads, built between 1407 and 1417. After a Blackhead married, he was granted citizenship, and from there he went to junket at the Great Guild instead of the house of the unmarried masters. The great hall of the building is, unusually, divided by a single row of columns into two naves of unequal width, and their capitals are decorated with the two-legged, twisting-tailed dragons already known from the gate of the St. Catherine’s Church.

Another favorite hiding place for dragons were the gutters, whose function allowed them to openly appear to the people of the street, while the rainwater flowing through their bodies pleasantly cooled their fiery complex. Dragon-shaped gutters most probably already existed in the late Middle Ages, but tin is an easily decaying substance. The earliest surviving dragon gutter – and even two of them – are on the façade of the town hall. For these, the coppersmith Daniel Pöppel received a payment in 1629. Moreover, we find a third one under the arcades of the town hall, which no longer serves as a gutter, but as a shop sign of the restaurant III DRAAKON, the “Third Dragon”.

One of the last specimens of Tallinn dragons can be found on Pikk Street, next to the House of the Blackheads. The beautiful Egyptianizing Art Nouveau house was designed in 1909 by the Baltic German architect Jacques Rosenbaum for merchant Reinhold Reichmann. The images show well the plight of the dragons at the beginning of the century of light and reason. The ground floor of the building still houses the DRAAKON Gallery.

A year earlier, Rosenbaum already designed a house for the opposite side of the street, also on behalf of Reinhold Reichmann. It is a representative of a playful, Art Nouveauesque version of Neo-Renaissance, and is therefore decorated with the favorite dolphins of the Renaissance instead of the dragons. In this house, the dragon is inside. This is the Russian Embassy.