Throughout history, and with the support of once current ruling powers, each one of the largest Christian denominations (Catholic, Lutheran, and Russian Orthodox) was once dominant in Latvia, and therefore in Riga, majestic cathedrals rise next to small churches and humble houses of worship. On their vaults and stained glass windows, culture history experts will be able to reveal the "footprint" of nearly all of the great art and architectural styles known to Europe. The "pearl fishers" of sacral art will find it exciting to visit not only the capital city of Latvia with its Dome, the St. Peter's Church, and the Nativity of Christ Cathedral, but also smaller towns and villages. For instance, if one goes to Ļaudona in the Madona District, the three congregations – Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox, have now found a common home in an Orthodox Church building, which was built and consecrated in 1863. During World War II, the building was damaged in a fire, but during the Soviet era it was utilised for the needs of a library.
Catholics and Old Believers in Latgale
Almost all of those interested in pilgrimage and religious tourism are often surprised about a self-evident co-existence of two branches of Christianity – Western (Catholicism and Protestantism) and Eastern (Orthodox and Old Believers). Unforgettable sites and objects of religious art are to be found in Latgale, the stronghold of Catholicism in Latvia, where crucifixes are evident in public space and a sacred site of international renown at Aglona bears witness to the strong faith of the region's people. Latgale, however, is home also to a number of Orthodox Church buildings harbouring outstanding pieces of sacred art, for instance, a national scale monument of architecture, the Šķeltova Orthodox church in the Aglona District is the only one built back in 1836 that has preserved its original Empire style; the miniature wooden church with white columns is located by the roadside, amidst a cemetery surrounded by a birch grove.
Still, one of the biggest surprises in Latgale is its small and mysterious Old Believers churches – built of stone or brick in the towns, or of brightly painted timber – in the villages. The Old Believers' community is a secluded one; therefore one should not be too optimistic that the doors of all of these churches will be wide open. However, when the visit has been arranged in advance, those small houses of God reveal a centuries old tradition and gems of sacred art to the well-wishing visitor.
Churches in Kurzeme
Kurzeme, the heart of the Duchy of Courland, for its part, has fostered to these very days not only the stately Catholic and Lutheran churches, the benches of which still carry the touch of medieval worshipers, but also the small, quiet coastal churches, traditionally without a steeple (so as not to lead seafarers astray), and with models of sailing ships attached to the roof beams.
Kurzeme also offers a particular surprise to its visitors with its amazing Baroque and Rococo woodcarvings and painted ceilings done by local artisans who most often as not did not even have a surname. Take note of the name of the Apriķi Lutheran church in the Aizpute District – this small structure built in the 17th century as a private chapel for a local landowner is one of the most splendid examples of the Baroque and Rococo style in the Baltics.
Still, the sacred art scene of Latvia would not be complete without music. There are about 300 of the so-called historical organs in this country, namely, musical instruments built before 1945, and several of which have been listed among the treasures of the world heritage. For instance, the organ in the Holy Trinity Lutheran Cathedral of Liepaja is the only remaining original, unreconstructed pipe organ in the world that can still be played.
The organ of the Riga Dome Cathedral and the central panel of its façade have been preserved since 1601. Pipe organ experts consider that Riga may be considered a metropolis not only of Art Nouveau, but also of the Romantic period organs. Whether you have decided to undertake a journey along Latgale’s sacred pilgrimage routes or just to visit the largest churches of Old Riga, in each of these you will encounter the true spirit of the Latvian people and find time for prayer in contemplation on the Almighty.