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Catholics are one of the largest Christian confessions of Latvia, as well as the owners of unique sacral art values. Latvian Roman Catholics own the world famous holy shrine – the Aglona Basilica, but also other churches are noticeable in its architecture and artistic values.
According to the testimonies of the German canon and chronicler Adam of Bremen, the attempts to introduce Christianity in the Baltics began already during the 11th century when by the urge of Denmark’s king the first wooden church was built in Kurzeme in 1070. In this case with the concept Christianity we understand Catholicism, although Russian Orthodox missionaries from Polotsk were the first to bring the Christian news to the East of the current territory of Latvia.
During the 13th-15th centuries the Archbishopric of Riga, which had 40 subjected congregations, formed in the territory of Livonia. At the moment there were more than 250 Catholic congregations in Latvia – in the big cities they were numerous, in the small villages – little; however, exactly there were the people with the strongest faith.
Latgale is the citadel of Latvia’s Catholicism – the most of congregations and churches, including the Aglona Basilica, are concentrated there. Every year hundreds of thousands pilgrims from all Eastern Europe go to the basilica on the Assumption Day of the Virgin Mary on August 15. The Roman Pope John Paul II visited and blessed the holy shrine of Aglona in 1993.
One of the most typical symbols of Latgale is the outer room crucifix, which is set up both in villages, at farmsteads and simply at the edge of a field. Every spring believers gather at tidy and fancy crucifixes to surrender to „singings of May” – a peculiar national liturgy. However, Latgale is full of surprises also for them who have decided to attend the best-looking churches. They are so many, so magnificent and so sincere – from tiny wooden to big, luxurious white-coloured two-tower cathedrals.
The brightest sample of Latgale baroque architecture is the Kraslava Roman Catholic Church. In 1755 the construction of the brick wall Catholic church was began following the design of the Italian architect Paracco. The building was intended to be the residence of Inflanty’s bishop; however, Latgale was annexed to Russia, and the plans did not come true. The fundamental works were finished in 1767. The altar piece of the temple „St Ludwik departures for the Crusade” („Svētais Ludviks dodas krusta karā”, 1884., J. Matejko) is an art monument. By restoring it in 2003, a unique fresco was found under it. The fresco having the same name „St Ludwik departures for the Crusade” was painted by Filippo Castaldi. Now there are two paintings on the main altar of the Kraslava church – J. Matejko’s work is placed on the right side of the altar, but the fresco can be seen on its historical site in the centre of the altar.
The Pasiene St Cross Roman Catholic Church (in Zilupe municipality) is considered to be one of the most outstanding churches not only in Latgale, but in the whole Latvia. It was built with the support of the earl J. Borh in 1761 in the style of Polish baroque and was previously planned as a Dominican abbey church. Till nowadays it has been little transformed and boasts the splendid rococo style interior. The sacral music festival and Polish days take place in the Pasiene church every year.
In its turn, the Daugavpils St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, which was built during 1848–1849, architecturally reminds of the St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican. But the Berzgale Catholic Church (1750-1751), which is situated not far from Aglona, is a Latgale-typical small baroque wooden church with two towers. Its interior setup has been kept since 18th century. A national memorial architecture monument is the Dagda St Trinity Catholic Church constructed in the baroque style. During times when Latgale was called Polish Inflanty, the richest and the most influential Latgale magnates Huelsens lived in Dagda and supported the construction of this splendid church in 1742.
The miniature Indrica John Baptist Catholic Church, which was built at the end of the 17th century, leaves unforgettable impressions. The building is placed far from big roads, in a primitively beautiful site at the Indrica river outfall into the Daugava (about 20 km towards the East from Kraslava).
One of the oldest wooden churches of Latgale – miniature and attractive – stands among thin larches. Local craftsmen built the Indrica church for the money of earls Platers. Its planning clearly shows the builders’ desire to stick to the samples of classic monumental architecture. The xylographs of the central altar were made by the so-called masters of the Stelmuze (or Subate) wood carving school - autodidacts. The presence of genuine naivety in the imitations of baroque forms and motives gives an unrepeatable peculiarity to their work. The painting „St Maria Magdalena” („Sv. Marija Magdelēna”, third quarter of the 18th century) in the upper part of the side altar sharply contrasts with the wood carvings of the church. It is a real masterpiece of professional rococo painting.
St Jacob’s Cathedral in Riga
The most striking Catholic church in Riga is the St Jacob’s Cathedral, which is situated beside the Saeima building – the Parliament of the Republic of Latvia. In 1225 they started to build the St Jacob’s Church in the forms of early Gothic. This comparatively small church has an expressive thin tower, which has retained the pyramidal form characteristic of Riga medieval church towers. Now the St Jacob’s Church is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Church archbishop.