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.

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