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A great variety of religious confessions have worked in Latvia for centuries, each of them has had and has the opportunity to build its own church. Therefore, sacred architecture is so diverse, many-sided and original here. It is also so saturated with samples of the upper fineness of art and craft that a visit to a church turns into a broad cultural and historical journey through centuries, art styles and curiouses.
Church steeples of the Old Riga make one of the most beautiful symbols of Riga. The old temples lean in the centre of Riga one next to the other. For centuries, the Catholic and Protestant churches, Christ's Birth Orthodox Cathedral, Riga Grebenshchikov’s Old Believers' church, as well as synagogue, built in year 1905 have lived side to side for years. The Armenian Apostolic Church on Kojusalas Street is one of the newest churches of Riga.
The oldest churches of Riga closest to the shore of the Daugava River – Dome Cathedral, St. Peter’s, St. John’s, and St. Jacob’s – have roosters for the decorations on their tops, not crosses. According to the Christian tradition, the rooster is a vigilant defender against any evil and he can drive away every bad thing by his morning song. A rooster on the top of a tower has also a practical use – it serves as a weathercock setting the rhythm of the life for Riga as the port city, where many sailing ships stop.
Riga Dome Cathedral – the most famous in Latvia
Riga Dome Cathedral is one of the most famous churches in Riga and in Latvia. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church and one of the finest concert halls in the world. The foundation-stone of Riga Dome Cathedral was placed on the 25th day of July, 1211, but the first church burnt in the city fire. The building has suffered from fire accidents for several times, therefore the restoration has changed both its externals and interiors over the centuries. Today, the picture of the medieval interior is lost in the Cathedral, but relatively many evidences of this era have remained. They include the choir chairs with side panels decorated with fretwork, more than fifty grave plaques and monuments, as well as the Baltic Pearl – the Northern entrance of the Dome "Paradise Portal" with the portrayal of Mary's coronation. Pay attention to the stained glasses of the Gothic window openings fitted up at the end of the 19th century, when the Dome Construction Division of History and Antiquities Researchers’ Association began the reconstruction of Dome in year 1885.
However, the Riga Dome Cathedral has gained its worldwide fame owing to its organ built by the company E.F.Walcker&Co on 1883/84. The organ is recognized as one of the most valuable historic organs of the world (the highest achievement of art during the late-period of romanticism). The organ of Riga Dome has 124 registers, 4 manuals and a pedal, 6718 pipes of different size and material located on 26 wind chests. The pipes are of different sizes – the largest one is 10 m, while the smallest one – only 13 mm long. The composition "Nun danket alle Gotta" for the consecration ceremony of Riga Dome organ was written by Ferenc Liszt. The current condition of the organ as an instrument allows its careful and cautious use in concerts. It is really a unique musical and spiritual experience! Do not miss an opportunity to attend an organ concert!
St. Peter’s church – the highest tower
The highest tower of Old Riga belongs to St. Peter's Church, it was counted as the highest wooden building in Europe (120.7 m) up to the Second World War. The Gothic style church built in 1209 has changed during the turns of the ages; it has suffered not only from the sectarian battles and iconic pogroms, but also from fires. St. Peter's tower was struck by lightning for six times! It was destroyed for the last time during the World War II, on the 29th day of June, 1941, just on St. Peter's day. Now, the tower of the St. Peter's church is 123.25 m high (its restoration was completed on the 29th of June, 1973, also on St. Peter's day). This time, it is made of metal instead of wood and it has built-in lifts taking the visitors to the 72 m high platform for sight-seeing. Tower has a clock showing only hours by tradition; it starts the whole hours by the Latvian folk song melody "Riga Ring" five times a day.
Diversity of churches
In Riga, at the beginning of Brivibas Street, on the Esplanade, Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral is located. It was built from 1876 to 1884. From 1964 to 1990, the "House of Knowledge" and the planetarium were placed in the building. It was also a home for one of the most popular cafes of the period "God's Ear", where one could always meet artists, musicians, poets, and other "wrong-minded people.”
St. Jesus Lutheran Church built in the style of the Empire rises at the beginning of the Moscow suburb near the Central market. It is the largest wooden building in Latvia and one of the largest wooden churches in Europe. The current church is the fourth at this place (the first is dated with the year 1635, the last one – with the year 1813), since the previous three churches were wrecked in wars and fires.
The white and tall Grebenshchikov’s prayer-house in Moscow suburb is one of the most interesting sacred tourism objects in Riga. Its golden dome can be seen getting closer to the city centre from the side of Island Bridge. The foundation of this prayer-house was built in year 1760. Grebenshchikov’s Old Believers’ parish is the largest in the world, approximately 20 000 believers serving the God still continue to follow the ancient traditions and to sing the ancient songs. The prayer-house has a rich collection of icons, books and manuscripts of 15th to 19th centuries.
The Wonders of Latgale
You will meet these exotic Old Believers’ and the Orthodox churches also when you’ll visit Latgale. They affect and enchant you by the simplicity of wooden buildings, colours and the ancient looks. Also one of the most important Eastern Catholic sacral places is located in Latgale – it is Aglona. As such, it has begun to develop since the end of the 17th century. The local couple of landowners Shostvicki donated 17 villages with 90 houses to establish a Catholic cathedral and abbey in 1699. When the church burnt down in 1699, a stone monastery building and a stately church of Baroque taste with 60 m high towers was built in this place from 1768 to 1780. The equipment of the church is made at the beginning of the 19th century. A large collection of paintings, sculptures and art treasures is stored here. It includes the famous icon "Aglona Miraculous Virgin" (17th C.) unveiled only in the cases of religious ceremonies. It is believed that it possesses healing abilities. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive to Aglona each year on the 15th day of August, the day of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1993, the Pope John Paul II visited and blessed Aglona sacred place.
Temptation of Kurzeme
The brief excursus around the Latvian churches would not be complete without some little churches in Kurzeme, where, for example, the Apriki Evangelic Lutheran Church (in Aizpute district, near Liepaja) stands for centuries in rural silence, surrounded by old trees, with plain-looking exterior. Thanks to the luxury of its interior, it is known as the pearl of Kurzeme. The interior of the church is acknowledged as one of the abundant baroque and rococo-style samples of the Baltics.
But, if you have reached Apriki, you should definitely go to Liepaja too. In the naval port, the largest military territory of the Baltics since the time of Russian Empire, the first submarine base of the tsarist Russia was placed. Today, we can see St. Nicholas Orthodox Sea Cathedral with gilded domes instead of it. The gym of the army was placed in the building during the Soviet occupation, but the cathedral serves its original purpose now.
In the centre of the city, you can find one of the most beautiful late-Baroque churches in Latvia – Liepaja St. Trinity Lutheran Church (1742 - 1758). The church is famous for its luxurious baroque interior, 1100 seats, the 55 m high tower, and the largest organ in Latvia (131 registers, 4 manuals, more than 7000 pipes; it was the largest in the world until the year 1912). It still sounds great and is considered as historically the largest original mechanical organ in the world.