Die Kapitelle der Ordensburg Fellin (Viljandi) – Dinge aus zweiter Hand aus Alt-Pernau (Vana-Pärnu)?


  • Kaur Alttoa




Viljandi Castle, Old Pärnu Cathedral, Medieval Stone Carving, Cloister


The rediscovery of the Viljandi Castle, which was totally destroyed during the Great Northern War, occurred between 1878 and 1879, when extensive excavations were conducted under the direction and guidance of Theodor Schiemann (1847–1921). The real sensation revealed by the excavations at the time was the discovery of numerous carved construction details. Most of them were column capitals or bases. These have been attributed to the main castle, which was a convent building typical of the Teutonic Order. This type of castle was developed in Prussia between ca 1280 and 1300, and its “classic” form spread between 1300 and 1330, during approximately the same half century as the Viljandi convent building was built.

Some of the Viljandi column capitals have figural decorations and oak leaves are most common. There is also a large capital with naturalistic grape leaves, which comes from a cloister and was completed in the late 13th century. Apparently, the convent building was being constructed at that time.

However, most of the capitals are much more archaic. Some of the motifs are typical of the Romanesque style. But the most common are the so-called “bud capitals” typical of the Early Gothic style. Basically such decorations became popular in Old Livonia in the 1250s and 1260s. In any case, it is clear that a large number of the capitals were carved when the convent-type castles had yet to develop.

In the past, I have alluded to the possibility that there was a large richly decorated structure in Viljandi which was demolished to build the convent building. However, this is extremely unlikely. Although an archaeological study has not been made of the entire area of Viljandi’s main castle, it is hard to identify a place where such a large-scale building could have existed.

Therefore, the possibility should be considered that some of the caitals were brought from elsewhere. We should also turn our attention to the fact that there are numerous capitals and bases for paired columns. Heretofore, it has been assumed that they had been used to decorate the windows of the chapel and capital hall in the northern wing of the main castle. Actually they originate from a structure which had an open gallery or cloister. However, this would mean that there was a very richly decorated structure in 13th century Old Livonia that was demolished less than 50 years after it was built, and the ruins were dispersed. There were very few such structures in Old Livonia at the time. However, one such case does exist, and it is not far from Viljandi – namely the Old Pärnu Cathedral.

The main church of the Oesel–Wiek bishopric in Old Pärnu was completed in the early 1250s. Based on written records, we know that there was a capital hall, refectory and dormitory for the cathedral chapter house. This spatial plan also alludes to the existence of a cloister. The Old Pärnu Cathedral was destroyed by the Lithuanians in 1263. Later, the ruins of the cathedral were reconstructed into a parish church. However, this means that the cloister was no longer need. And it is possible that some of the carved decorations were transported to Viljandi, where the construction of a large-scale castle was under way during the last decades of the 13th century.


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Author Biography

Kaur Alttoa

Kaur Alttoa (b. 1947) has been a long-time scholar and teacher of art history at the University of Tartu and he is one of the foremost specialists of the history of medieval architecture in the Baltic region. His objects of interest have included both medieval fortresses and sacral buildings. Among his major contributions stands out the restoration and study of the St John´s Church in Tartu, which was also published as a monograph in 2011.




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