Friday, October 2, 2015

Riga from above: St. Peter's Church

There aren’t many places in Rīga where you can get this view.

It was on my very first trip to Latvia ( the spring of 1995) that my grandmother, mother and I visited St. Peter’s Church in Vecrīga. Twenty years later I returned to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, two little boys in tow.

The vistas from that first trip were burned into my memory, the aerial perspective of the art nouveau historical buildings, the churches and red roofs of Vecrīga seeming so familiar, even though I couldn’t name more than a handful.

But there they were. The Rīga Market. The Rīga Cathedral (which just saw the restored rooster returned to the steeple on Tuesday). Egle. Kaķu nams. The radio tower. Pulvertornis. The Brīvības piemineklis.

In high school I painted a cityscape based on some of the photographs I took. And there it was, the church on 10 Mārstaļu St. which is far from one of Rīga’s best known, but was instantly recognizable, as it featured so prominently on my canvas along with the Rīgas central market. I wonder what my art teacher thought of the old architecture mixed in with the futuristic (in fact zeppelin hangar-like!) pavilions… Did my painting also have a river, a Daugava, running through its frame?

On our previous visit to Latvia we walked all the way to St. Peter’s massive wooden doors, only to find the tower was closed for the day. This time around it was open, only a short wait for the elevator standing between us and the view from 236 feet. We paid a small sum for the pleasure, the boys all smiles in anticipation, and then we emerged, to blue skies and fantastic sights.

The first mention of St. Peter's Church is in records dating to 1209, remaining undamaged in the large fire that year due to its stone construction. It was during the 13th century that the middle section of the church was built, the only remnants of which are located in the outer nave walls and inside a few nave pillars. A second period of construction began in the 1400s, interrupted by first the Polish–Lithuanian–Teutonic War and then the plague. By 1500 it encompassed a basilica with three aisles and ornate vaulted ceilings, a bell tower and an octagonal steeple. The tower collapsed on March 11, 1666, burying not only a neighboring building but also eight people in its debris.

While up until this point the church had been constructed in Gothic and Romanesque building styles, the third period of construction was more along the lines of early Baroque. Between 1671 and 1692 a new tower, a western façade and three identical portals were built, the roof, vaulted ceilings and furnishings renovated partly due to another fire which destroyed the tower, roof, ceilings, windows and interior in 1677. At the time of its construction the new 212 foot copper-roofed steeple was the tallest of its kind in Europe at the time.

The brick facade of the west wall was covered with limestone from Salaspils and Koknese sometime in the 17th century. The church was decorated with volutes, pilasters, cornices, vases and borders made of Gotland stone, and a new tower clock with a glockenspiel from Amsterdam was installed in 1694.

Lightning struck and set fire to the tower and church May 10, 1721, but it was rebuilt. Then rebuilt again, after it burned down during World War II, destroyed by artillery fire on June 29, 1941. A reproduction of the previous rooster and #7 total was placed atop the steeple in 1970 and the renovated clock tower becoming operational five years later. The St. Peter's Latvian Lutheran congregation resumed services in the church in 1991 and the property returned to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia on April 4, 2006.

A rendition of what the city of Riga looked like centuries ago

Ticket prices are as follows: 9 euro/adult, 7 euro/university student, 3 euro/elementary student and children under 7 free. The fee covers the interior exhibits and the observation tower, with panoramic views of the medieval and modern capital city of Rīga including the its port, the Gulf and the Daugava River. The interior exhibits feature the history of the church as well as a look at a number of the original elements including the crypt, restored stone and wood epitaphs, and a menorah dating back to 1596. Hours are Tuesday - Saturday from 10am to 6pm & Sundays 12-6pm from September 1st to April 30th. Starting May 1st to August 31st the hours are prolonged from 10am to 7pm, Sundays 12-7pm. The church is closed on Mondays.


  1. Oh Liene we had the best time in Latvija! Unfortunately we weren't able to go up the tower this time though. Your posts are so much more meaningful now that I have been over there.....they so resonate with me! I didn't feel like I was in a strange land at all....the language.....the food and just being there felt like 'home' and of course meeting the relatives and going back to my Parents' villages.....absolutely fantastic!

    1. I'm so happy to hear you had a wonderful trip! I'm looking forward to hearing all about it from your perspective...

    2. Oh yes I will definitely be blogging about it all .......


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