St. John’s church in Tartu
St. John’s church in Tartu

Kristel Markus-Venäläinen | Doctoral researcher, University of Helsinki


St. John’s church (Estonian: Jaani kirik) is a medieval church in Tartu, in modern Estonia, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The oldest parts of the church date to the 14th century, but the church has been rebuilt several times over the years due to damages caused by numerous wars and fires. Today, it is a three-aisled basilica with one-aisled choir, a big western tower, a sacristy on the north side, and chapels on the southern side. Once the church had approximately 2000 terracotta figures, each modeled individually, which depicted besides Christian iconography also fantastic creatures, foliage and figures of non-religious nature. The large number of the terracotta figures and their artistic execution make them unique in the context of medieval art in Europe.

The exact construction time of the church is unknown, since written sources from that time are scarce. Nevertheless, it is clear that the construction evolved in several stages and began with the erection of the choir during the first quarter of the 14th century. Dendro-chronological analysis of wooden rafts, on which the church foundations are erected, indicates that the construction of the nave began around 1321. Several other methods for dating have been used, such as stylistic analysis, as well as comparisons with other medieval churches nearby and elsewhere in Europe. The fashion of hairstyles and headdresses (such as kruseler) of the surviving sculptures have also been an important source for the dating of the site.

St. John’s church is an important landmark, and its architecture speaks also for the history of Tartu. Tartu belonged to the Hanseatic League (medieval trade union joining market towns and merchants mainly around the North and Baltic Sea regions), and the trade route between East (Novgorod-Pskov) and Western Europe passed through it. It is probable that at least partly the construction of the church was initiated by the (foreign) merchants – the fact that one of the church’s medieval chapels is named in historical records as Lübeck chapel indicates this possibility. Also, Brick Gothic architecture was widely spread especially in the towns of the Hanseatic League.


The most significant aspect about St. John’s church is its rich sculptural program, which in the church’s heyday consisted of around 2000 terracotta figures. Approximately half of them have survived to this day. Numerous wars, such as the Great Northern War (1700–1721) and World War II (1939–1945), have wrecked the church and left the sculptural program fragmented. Ironically, the biggest harm was caused by the 19th-century architects and the ideals of their time: in the 1820s and 1830s, the choir and nave of the church were reconstructed according to the spirit of classical architecture. In order to re-design the church, medieval-looking sculptures were simply cut off and destroyed. Fortunately, the figures in the niches of the triforium zone and on the columns were simply covered with plaster, which secured their existence.

Terracotta or fired clay, distinctive for its reddish-brownish color, was a known material in medieval Europe, but its use remained rather marginal. Best equivalents to St. John’s church can be found for instance in northern Germany, where extensive use of terracotta sculpture can be explained by the lack of natural stone (see Chorin Abbey, St. Mary’s church in Rostock, St. Mary Magdalene’s church in Eberswalde, Ebstorf Abbey – all from the 13th and 14th centuries). Drawsko Pomorskie church (14th century), Orneta church (14th/15th centuries), and Malbrok Castle (13th century) in modern Poland also offer comparisons. Hattula church (15th century) in Finland with its two terracotta heads is geographically the nearest example of the use of terracotta to St. John’s church.

The technology that was employed in making terracotta figures varies in each site. Most often modeling or molds were used, the latter was a quicker solution that allowed to “mass-produce” the figures. But in St. John’s church stonemasons have cut and carved the figures out from larger blocks of clay, a method more characteristic to the making of wood and stone sculptures. Therefore, each figure out of the 2000 was one of a kind. Stylistic analysis has shown that several sculptors were working on the site, whose expertise and mastery varied. Furthermore, St. John’s figures are also striking due to their large size; many sculptures were made of several (up to five) blocks that were united after firing.

The whole process was difficult, time-consuming, and expensive: first the clay blocks were made, then the sculpture was carved, after which the drying and firing process followed. Firing in the wood-fired oven took around two weeks; the whole process of making one figure might have taken months. The bigger the figure, the longer the process lasted. Terracotta figures also tend to crack easily during the firing process if right temperature is not established.

As approximately half of the sculptures are destroyed or missing, many survived in fragments and the location of all the survived figures is unsure, it is difficult to reconstruct the whole iconographic program of St. John’s church. Furthermore, instead of using classical attributes, many figures have had scrolls with explanatory inscription. Unfortunately, the text from the scrolls has vanished, as well as the original polychrome of the figures. Nevertheless, the Last Judgement theme seems to have been the dominant one. For instance, the west portal’s pediment is crowned by Christ in Majesty, depicted in a mandorla, and followed by the kneeling Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, and the twelve apostles. It forms a representation of the Deësis, which as an image type originates in the Eastern Christian context.

Moreover, in the interior, Christ as Judge can be found from the western wall of the nave; the bosses from the vaults have depicted four apocalyptic creatures and the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei); and crowned figures with scepters sitting under the sculpted baldachins in the pseudo-triforium zone represented the elders of the Apocalypse. The Crucifixion group with life-sized figures of Jesus on the cross and standing figures of Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist that once stood in the wall niche above the triumphal arch are also noteworthy.

There are, however, a lot of sculptures that still are waiting further studies and explanations. For example, the fantastic creatures and foliage from the blocks surrounding the pillars. Moreover, some of the unidentifiable human figures could have been individuals with secular backgrounds, perhaps including patrons. The gallery of different human heads also expresses individuality: different hairstyles and headwear were used, some faces have beards, others are clean-shaven. Art historians have seen those heads as representations of different medieval social classes.

During the conservation of surviving terracotta sculptures the research has largely been focused on the materiality and technique of the latter, while the original meanings and functions of these figures are still vague. The main questions have remained unanswered: who were depicted on those sculptures and why did St. John’s church have such a rich figural program? The scarcity of written sources and state of the figures (lack of attributes) had not made it an easy task for the art historians. Medieval sacral architecture containing terracotta sculptures from Northern and Central Europe have so far offered good comparisons to St. John’s church, but comparative analysis based on the subject matter might offer new results. Therefore, another medieval site with sculptural program depicting representations of different estates of the realm need to be found.

Further Reading

Alttoa, Kaur, Eve Alttoa, Krista Kodres, and Anu Mänd. 2011. Tartu Jaani Kirik (=St. John's Church in Tartu). Eesti Kirikud III. Edited by Anneli Randla. Tallinn: Muinsuskaitseamet.

It is currently the only larger study published on St. John's church in Tartu. Book contains several articles on the history of the church, its terracotta figures and iconographical program, and on the restoration works from 1990s. Written in Estonian but has very good summaries in English and German.

Konow, Thorborg von. 1993. "Deterioration Problems in Tartu Jaani Church." Architectural monuments in Estonia and Scandinavia. Restoration in theory and practice. (Conference materials. Architectural Conservation Methodology Conference, Tallinn, 9-10 October 1989). Tallinn: Eesti Ehitusmälestised. 121-128.

Further reading from the time, when the extensive restoration work of St. John's church in Tartu were still ongoing.

Piiri, Lindy. 2004. "Aktuelle Restaurierungsprobleme an der St. Johanniskirche zu Dorpat." Gotik im Baltikum : acht Beiträge zum 6. Baltischen Seminar 1994. Lüneburg: Baltische Seminare. 33-49.

On the restoration of terracotta figures of St. John's church in Tartu. Based on research made for the master's thesis (defended in the Institute of Organic Chemistry at the University of Tartu in 1996).

Kristel Markus-Venäläinen, "St. John’s church in Tartu," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,