Riga, Latvia:Town Hall Square; Domes and Steeples

We are in the Town Hall Square and these gothic structures are going to give us our first glimpse of Riga’s architecture and style. There are many churches, domes and steeples to study, but today I am going to show the most prominent and the must-sees in Riga. I hope you have brought good walking shoes!

This copper-red-peachy building is the House of Blackheads. Remember we first heard of them in Tallinn, Estonia. This building is one of Riga’s most prominent and elaborately decorated with sculptures, coats of arms, a clock, and fancy weathervanes. In the 13th century a group of young, un-married, merchant men formed a society/club for entertaining. They held festivals, carnivals, and tournaments featuring the exotic foods and goods they brought back from their sea-faring adventures.   They were very good at protecting their ships and caravans from looting pirates and robbers. These men were mostly German, but there were English, Scottish, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian members also. The more the merrier and they all had something to contribute. Their parties were famous and included the aristocratic citizens of Riga, as well as the elite of Russia. Their patron saint was St Maurice, supposedly a Black African Christian Roman commander, who died a martyr after refusing to kill Christians. A likeness of his head is on the Blackheads coat of arms, giving them their name.

An engraving on one of the portals reads, “Should you ever see me falling, raise me up, it’s your calling.” They have had to answer that call many times. The building was completely destroyed by the Germans, along with the other buildings in Town Square in 1941. The Russians completely demolished it in 1948. In 1999, the reconstruction of the House of Blackheads was completed, featuring a Gothic style building with a Dutch Renaissance facade. The townspeople contributed by buying individual bricks to complete the building and answered their calling.

Riga, Latvia, Town Hall Square, House of Blackheads

Quite the impressive place isn’t it? Did you notice the golden decorations at the top? There is a lot going on up there………….

Riga, Latvia, House of Blackheads

and down at ground level too……………..I wonder why there is not the golden paint entirely around the black man’s head? Did it rub off? Has it been newly repainted and they are not finished? Always work to be done!

Riga, Latvia, House of Blackheads Entrance

That is quite the clock as well………….it reminds me of an expensive piece of jewelry, like a brooch, or a medal………pinned on your chest.

Riga, Latvia, House of Blackheads Clock (Circa 1334)

What is the other steeple in the background?

Riga, Latvia, House of Blackheads, Church of St Peter

It’s the Church of St Peter…… You can climb up to the top of the steeple too. Their is a famous golden rooster weathervane at the tippy-top. There are many churches in Riga. This surprises me. I don’t think they are used as churches, so much as museums now.  The Russian Occupation drummed religion out of the folks ( by refusing them the right to practice their religion) and replaced religion with the one for all and all for one, Mother Russia. But, I do think there are a lot of superstitions that the folks believe in. Thoughts that would keep them grounded to their identities in this place. Such is the tale of the rooster weathervanes on the tops of the churches, not crosses. According to Christian tradition, the rooster is a vigilant defender against evil. With his morning song he can drive away all bad things. The time before the rooster’s crow is full of evil, as Jesus told his disciples, “Before the cock crows, thou shalt deny me trice”. Therefore, the rooster should be raised as high as possible to hear their songs from far away.  The roosters in Riga were placed on the churches, but also served as weathervanes. Riga is a seaport and the wind direction was very important for the sailing vessels. The rooster/weathervane/tradition decorated all the churches near the Daugava River. To replace the religious meaning of the rooster, perhaps to hide its true meaning, why not start a tale that would be lively enough to remember and could be continued without much attention to religion? The 430 foot Gothic tower of the church, built in the late 1400’s  was plagued by misfortunes. It collapsed (1666),  but a new tower built in 1690, was the highest wooden structure in the world at the time. In 1721, lightning struck the steeple and the church burned to the ground. The tower was restored by decree of the Russian Tzar, Peter I and the church was completely destroyed in WWII. However, since the beginning until 1941 there have been six rooster/weathervanes. Strong storms took them out or they simply just fell off. So the story goes and the superstition…..a construction worker must climb up and sit on the rooster’s back, drink a glass of wine and then drop the glass to the ground. The number of fragments the glass is broken into determines the number of years the tower will remain standing. In 1746, Johan Willburn, dropped his empty goblet of wine and it tumbled down into a passing hay cart and did not break at all, so all the folks believed the tower would soon collapse. But, the tower stood for 200 years until WWII, when it burned on St Peter’s Day, June 29th, 1941. Karma?…….

In 1967, renovation of the tower began again. This time the steeple was constructed of metal with an elevator built in it.  Galleries were made to be used as sightseeing platforms.

In 1970, for the 800th anniversary of the church, a new golden rooster was mounted and the architect dropped a glass of champagne from the rooster’s back and it broke into many, many, many shards.

By 1975, the church clock was repaired, according to old tradition, with only one hand.

By 1976, the church chimes worked, playing a Latvian song, “Riga dimd,” five times a day, and bells rang to mark the full hour.

So, everyone now can remember why the rooster is there…..Believe in faith or faith in superstition……….either way you know about the rooster!

Here is the front of St Peter’s Church. Sometimes the rooster gets stuck and won’t turn, so a team of experienced alpine climbers go up on their ropes to free it!

Riga, Latvia, Church of St Peter

Now about this little tree…………in Town Hall Square in front of the House of Blackheads ……there is a stone marker embedded in the cobblestones and above it sits a metal Christmas tree stating in eight languages, that this is the spot of the first public Christmas tree……

Now, I have already told you how the Blackhead Guild was a group of young men, who liked to eat, drink and be merry. In 1510, during their Christmas celebrations, that went from Christmas to New Years, these boys put a fir tree in the square, decorated it with paper roses (to represent the Virgin Mary) and then sang and danced around it. I’d say some drinking was involved, wouldn’t you? Anyway, they ended up setting the tree on fire. So, it was claimed they had the first public display of a Christmas tree. The very same claim was documented in Tallinn, Estonia in the same year. There has been a rivalry for the claim of the first Christmas tree ever since  I say since there were Blackhead Guilds in both towns at the same time they could both be right! Good fun travels fast! Today, in Riga, there is a giant, decorated Christmas tree that goes up in the square every Christmas! The tradition continues!

Riga, Latvia, Public Christmas Tree Marker/Statue in Town Hall Square

A statue of Roland is also in Town Hall Square. Roland seems to be the guy that makes it to a lot of town squares! Why is this? In a piece of Medieval literature, The Matter of France, Roland was depicted as a military man, who was a protector of the people. One of the good guys, so to speak. His statue, originally made of wood, was erected in towns during the Middle Ages, signifying the town privileges. It was an emblem of the freedom and civil rights granted to everyone, including the peasants.  There were rules to be followed concerning property rights, inheritance rights, marriage rights, the delivery of goods and laws on the treatment of criminals. The towns were called Roland Towns.

The original statue is housed in St Peter’s Church. On the replica, if you look closely, you can see this Roland also provides water, as there is a water fountain at his base.

Riga, Latvia, Town Hall Square, Statue of Roland, Church of St Peter, House of Blackheads

Town Hall was rebuilt in 2003 after its complete destruction in WWII. It is the exact copy of the original building of the 17th century, neo-classical design, including the coat-of-arms and statue of Themis, the Greek goddess of divine law and order. You can see from this photo that Roland keeps an eye on her!

Riga , Latvia, Town Hall, Statue of Roland

and another weathervane graces it’s roof……………..

Riga, Latvia, Town Hall Steeple

St James Cathedral is one of the smallest of the four Old Town Churches, but has maintained the features characteristic to Riga’s medieval churches. Originally, a Catholic church, it has changed hands many times. Built in 1225, it was just a small place to worship.  During the Protestant Reformation, a new chapel was added to the Gothic church and it became the second German language, Lutheran Church in Riga.  In 1523, it became the first Latvian language Lutheran Church here. When the Poles took control of the city in 1582 it was given back to the Jesuits as part of the Counter-Reformation, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gained control in Riga. In 1621, it was given back to the Lutherans after Gustav II Adolf of Sweden occupied Riga. So off and on it served as a Catholic Church, or a Swedish language, Lithuanian language, German language, Estonian language, Latvian Lutheran church. By 1812, Napoleon used it as a food warehouse for his troops.

In 1901, the oldest baroque altar (1680)  found in St James Church, was replaced with a new one.  In 1923, after a vote, the building was given back to the Catholic Church to be used as a Cathedral, since there was already an Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral in Riga, the Dome Cathedral.

Riga, Latvia, St James Cathedral

The Dome Cathedral was built in 1211 along the Daugava River by Bishop Albert of Riga, who  came from Lower Saxony in Northwestern Germany. It is considered the largest medieval church in the Baltic states. During the Soviet Occupation from 1939 to 1989 the church was used as a concert hall . The organ in Riga Cathedral was built by E.F. Walcker of Ludwigsburg, Baden-Württemburg, Germany in 1882. A tape of Latvian composer, Lūcija Garūta, playing the organ for a cantata during WWII, also captured the sound of a battle nearby.

In 2011, the copper roof was replaced and in 2016 the exterior tower was re-plated  and the wooden interior support renewed. Look up, there is a Golden Rooster up there!

Riga, Latvia, Dome Cathedral
Riga, Latvia, Riga Cathedral

A look back at Town Hall from this direction……………. Oh, so much to see here!

Riga, Latvia, Street View

Well, we’ll stop and have some coffee and a little rest and start again tomorrow in another medieval section of Riga! See you there!

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Sheree says:

    Lovely photos as always!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the tour, beautiful photos

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Leya says:

    Love Riga – thank you for a beautiful tour!


  4. Jo Shafer says:

    This fascinating photo-essay deserves another reading or two before I comment.


  5. Jo Shafer says:

    Four churches surrounding one city square, with “saint” Roland to watch over them all! Each one, along with the City Hall, is impressive in its own way. I love the rooster tradition. Yes, it’s quite scriptural, as you pointed out. It serves as a reminder for Christians not to betray their Jesus, doesn’t it? And I love the gorgeous, jewel-like blue clock on the face of the Blackheads. I didn’t find the head but I do see the bas relief of the African Roman commander on the right side of the portal. He’s beautiful. No, stunning in his beauty. And the Virgin Mary on the left. Oh, is that the head at the top of the portal?


  6. Jo Shafer says:

    I see Russian influence in St. Peter’s tower and a somewhat Turkish turban in the tower of City Hall.


  7. Love Riga, you really have shown its best….points.


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