Historians: Tartu's cathedral ruins provide introspection and meaning

Tartu Cathedral.
Tartu Cathedral. Source: Kiur Kaasik

Very little of Tartu's medieval architecture has survived, and places such as the ruins of the towering Tartu Cathedral provide an atmosphere for contemplation and meaning to an old and dignified city. Historians at Tartu University say that this legacy should not be given up carelessly.

Tartu Cathedral (Estonian: Tartu toomkirik) is Estonia and Latvia's largest medieval church and arguably Estonia's most significant one.

The construction of the cathedral's first structure began around 1225. During the three centuries that it served as a church, the construction was continuously enlarged. The main structure was completed in the 14th century, and the last important alterations occurred in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Poles who seized Tartu in 1582 and the Jesuits who visited the city recorded seeing the cathedral as the most beautiful ecclesiastical structure in Rzeczpospolita (Poland). By that time, however, the church was already falling into decay. The last masses were probably held in Tartu Cathedral around 1565, when the last remaining clergymen of the cathedral were deported to Russia.

In the early 17th century, the Swedes planned to hold Lutheran services there, but this never happened. So the cathedral was a Catholic church for the duration of its use as a place of worship. However, the deteriorating cathedral and its surroundings continued to be used as a burial ground until the Great Northern War, which left the building in ruins for good.

Mihkel Mäesalu and Madis Maasing wrote at length about the history of Tartu Cathedral in their book "Tartu Cathedral. Cathedral. Library. Museum," which brings together the related research and provides an overview of the building's eight-century history.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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