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The ancient cemetery, St. Brigitta convent, Estonia	Source: smoke666/Adobe Stock By Ed Whelan

Ancient Pirita Convent Caught Up in a Terrible War

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The Baltic nation of Estonia is one of Europe’s least crowded countries and has two UNESCO World Heritage sites, one you may never have heard of. The Struve Geodetic Arc , which Estonia shares with Belarus, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Moldova, Russia, Sweden, and  Ukraine is a chain of survey triangulations stretching from Hammerfest in Norway to the Black Sea, which yielded the first accurate measurement of a meridian. Estonia also has a remarkable history and as a result, there are many other historic landmarks in this small nation.

One of the most famous of these is Pirita Convent which played a very important role in the region in the Middle Ages . The imposing remains of the convent and church are still of great importance to the local Catholic community.

The History of Pirita Convent

To understand the history of Pirita Convent, we need to understand the bloody history of the Baltic region in the Middle Ages. The present-day nation of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia were the last strongholds of paganism at the time and the Northern Crusades were sanctioned by the Pope in an effort to forcefully convert the local people. This ultimately led to centuries of fighting and the establishment of mainly German colonies in the eastern Baltic .

The capital city, Tallinn, was established by German merchants in what is now Estonia. The area was ruled by the Livonian Knights and later the Knights of the Teutonic Order . As the German outposts prospered, the mercantile class became wealthy. Three merchants from Tallinn jointly decided to fund the building of a convent in the early 15 th century.

Construction on the site began in 1417 and was supervised by a German architect. The convent was named after St Birgitta, the patron saint of Sweden and a famous Christian mystic . It flourished for over a century and was home to a thriving community of nuns, members of the Bridgettine Order. The motherhouse of the convent was in Sweden and the original nuns came from that kingdom. Later a monastery was established for monks.

Depiction of Birgitta of Sweden having a vision (trollhare / CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)

Depiction of Birgitta of Sweden having a vision ( trollhare / CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)

By 1500 it was possibly the largest convent in Livonia, but after the introduction of Protestantism into the Baltic, the convent began to decline as many monks and nuns left. During the Livonian War, Tsar Ivan the Terrible fought the Poles, Swedes, and others for control of Livonia. This was a brutal war and no quarter was given by either side. The convent was attacked and looted by Russian troops sometime in 1577 and it was never rebuilt. 

Ivan The Terrible – oil by Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov (1848 – 1926) (Public Domain)

Ivan The Terrible – oil by Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov (1848 – 1926) ( Public Domain )

In the 1990s, when Estonia gained its independence, a group of nuns built a modern convent adjacent to the medieval nunnery and church. Today, the site is still used as a cemetery by local Catholics.

The Sights at Pirita Convent

The ruins overlook the Pirita River and are set in magnificent scenery where the large sculpted head of a gargoyle stands in the grounds of the convent. The buildings’ wooden rooves have long since disappeared, but the rest of the site is in remarkably good condition.

From north to south the convent measures 400 feet (121 m). It consists of three independent sections, all with different functions. The northern part held the nuns’ cloister and the abbesses’ house, while the southern section contained the buildings for the clergy and monks. The church stood in the center, accessed by a medieval stone ridge.

Ancient ruins of St. Brigitta convent. (Evdoha/Adobe Stock)

Ancient ruins of St. Brigitta convent. ( Evdoha/Adobe Stock)

The convent was built in the Romanesque style and nearly all of the original walls and facades are still standing, with a number of fine examples of semi-circular arches remaining. The site still has some remarkable barrel and groin vaults and fragments of ceramic moldings. The area is quite extensive and the remains of the church, monastery, and the convent can still be seen. Perhaps the most impressive remains at the site is the convent church, with walls standing at their original height and impressive buttresses on the walls that resemble towers.

There are a number of very impressive Romanesque alcoves and windows in the abbey, as well as beautiful memorials. The remaining original stone altars are in a poor state of repair, but a part of the cloister area , where the nuns once prayed and mediated, can still be walked by visitors. Remains of stone seats and cells where the nuns once spent time in contemplation are visible.

Graves at old cemetery of St. Brigitta convent, Tallinn, Estonia. (Victoria/Adobe Stock)

Graves at old cemetery of St. Brigitta convent, Tallinn, Estonia. ( Victoria/Adobe Stock)

The site’s cemetery contains a great deal of history and many fine examples of vaults and crosses.

How to get to Pirita Covent

The convent is not far from the Estonian capital, Tallinn. There are a number of tours to the historic site where a reasonable fee is charged to enter. The ruined convent is now managed by the Bridgettine Order of Nuns , who live adjacent to the medieval ruins.

Top image: The ancient cemetery, St. Brigitta convent, Estonia     Source: smoke666/Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

References

Kaljundi, L. (2007). T he Pirita Convent in Estonian Historical Memory: Not Just in the Forest behind the Convent.  Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi, 16(04), 141-144

Available at: https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=178569

Kreem, J., & Markus, K. (2007). Who Founded the Pirita Convent? Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi, 16(4)

Available at:   https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=178562

Tamm, J. (2010). Residences of abbesses in Estonian monastic architecture, based on the examples of St Michael’s Cistercian convent in Tallinn and the Brigittine convent in Pirita.  Baltic Journal of Art History, 2

Available at: file:///C:/Users/board/Downloads/800-Article%20Text-1710-1-10-20130108.pdf>

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