St. John's Church - History


St. John's Church - History 

St. John’s Church is the second most notable building in Cēsis (alongside the medieval Castle), one of the oldest medieval architectural monuments, and also one of the oldest and most imposing church buildings in Latvia.



From 1237 to 1561 Cēsis developed into one of the major centres of German power in the Baltic, as it became the capital of the Livonian Order and its Master’s residence. The church was built in the 13th century, as Christianity advanced into the Baltic, to serve the needs of the Livonian Order. At first services were held in the chapel of the Castle, but as the city grew in importance it became necessary to build a respectable masonry church—in those days the church building was used to symbolise the city’s power and its wealth.

 The church was constructed in four years from 1283 to 1287, during the reign of the second archbishop of Rīga, Johann von Lunen, under the direction of the Order’s Master, Wilken von Endorp. It was consecrated as the Cathedral of the Livonian Order on 24 June 1284 and is named after St. John the Baptist.

 Under one of the most notable Masters of the Livonian Order, Walter von Plettenberg, Cēsis became one of the first centres of the Lutheran Reformation in Livonia. He was instrumental in the church starting to preach in an evangelical manner in 1524. However, Poland-Lithuania gained control over most of Livonia, including Cēsis, in 1582 during the Livonian War. Soon the Counterreformation began and King Stephen Bathory established the Catholic Bishopric of Cēsis with St. John’s as its Cathedral.

 The most active workers in the Counterreformation were Jesuits, and their colleges were located in Rīga and Cēsis. Erdmann Tolgsdorff, a member of the Jesuit College, translated Peter Canisius’ Catholicorum Catechismus into Latvian, and was buried in St. John’s in 1620. Georg Elger, was a catholic priest in Cēsis from 1615 to 1621, and compiled the first Catholic Hymn Book in Latvian. Two bishops, Andreas Patricius Nidecki (1583-1587) and Otto Schenking (1587-1621), who worked here are also buried in the Cathedral.

 After the Swedish–Polish War Livonia became the property of Sweden. In 1627 King Gustav II Adolph gifted the former Catholic Bishopric, including the City of Cēsis and St. John’s Church, to Sweden’s Lord High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna. The Swedes began to eradicate all traces of the Counterreformation, reintroduced the Lutheran faith and campaigned against the residual paganism of the local inhabitants. Under the Treaty of Nystad in 1721, following the Great Northern War, Livonia became a province of Russia until Latvia gained its independence in 1919.

 Fires ravaged the city and damaged the church in 1568, 1607, 1640, 1665, 1671, 1694, 1746, and 1748. The army of Tsar Ivan the Terrible even used the church as a stable for horses during the Livonian War in 1577. The present 65-metre high church tower in neo-gothic style and was built during 1853, under the direction of a Latvian, Mārcis Podiņš-Sārums. The church suffered considerable damage again during World War II—the explosion of a munitions train in 1941 destroyed 56 stained glass widows and part of the roof, and a bomb in 1944 destroyed part of the roof and vaults in the southern aisle and damaged the organ and organ loft.


St. John’s is the largest medieval basilica-type church outside Rīga. It is 65 metres long and 32 metres wide, consisting of a nave and two aisles, with a massive 65-metre high bell tower capped by a 15-metre high steeple at its western end. The tower affords panoramic views of the city and its surrounding landscape, even the 40km-distant Zilais kalns. The threshold of the church is exactly 100 metres above sea level.

 The church building can seat 1000 people. As well as being a place of worship it also serves as a concert venue for Latvian and world famous choirs and organists, and hosts the biennial International Festival of Young Organists. The church is also an attractive venue for painters and other artists.

 Preserved in the church are several interesting historical and art monuments, which are included in the National Heritage Register. The church has been regarded as an important historical and architectural monument in Latvia even from the early 19th century.

 Altar retable. The neo-gothic style altar retable was designed by Andrei Schtakenschneider, chief architect at the court of Tsar Nikolai in St. Petersburg, made by local cabinetmaker Biedenroth, and financed by Count von Sievers, owner of the Castle Manor.

 Altarpiece. The “Crucifixion” by Estonian artist Johann Köler was completed in 1858 (oil painting on canvas 4.63m x 2.04m). Several copies of it exist in: St. Stephan Cathedral, Vienna; St. Isaac’s Cathedral and St. Catherine’s Swedish Church in St. Petersburg; Mārtiņa Church, Rīga; and Karkus Church, Estonia. In the early 20th century it was regarded as one of the most valuable altarpieces in Latvia.

 Pulpit. Donated in 1754 by the city’s Mayor Heinz.

 Tombstones. The church contains a rich collection of over 30 tombstones, the second largest in Latvia. The most notable are those of Masters of the Livonian Order—Johann Freitag von Loringhoven (1494); Wolter von Plettenberg (1535); Hermann Hasenkamp von Brüggeneye (1549)—and of Catholic Bishop Andreas Patricius Nidecki (1597). There is also a memorial to Wolter von Plettenberg in the Church Hall, erected in 1855 by the Baltic German nobility.

 Metalwork. The most intricate and artistically notable is the so-called Lamberg chandelier, donated in 1781 by the Cēsis Merchants Guild. Another fine piece is the lantern donated by Bishop Otto Schenking. They are organically integrated with the church and are characteristic of their period.

 Stained glass windows. These impart a unique atmosphere to the interior. The oldest windows date from 1884 and were made at the Heinerdorf workshop in Berlin. They portray the coats of arms of the Livonian Order, the Livonian Province, and the City of Cēsis. The remaining three ‘empty’ windows formerly held the coats of arms of members of the Cēsis nobility who had made the largest donations for church maintenance. In 1938 the Cēsis Savings and Loans Cooperative donated a stained glass window, designed by P. Kundziņš, with the Latvian flag as its centrepiece, which survived undamaged during the entire communist period. In 1988 a stained glass window commemorating the oldest school in Cēsis was added in the northern wall.


St. John’s was used until 1855 solely by the German congregation, which consisted primarily of members of the nobility and merchant class. In January 1855 it was divided into a Country (Latvian) congregation and a City (German) congregation.

 St. John’s Church remained the joint property of both congregations, but the Rectory was given to the Country (Latvian) congregation. In 1855 the first pastor of Latvian origin, Kārlis Eduards Punšelis (1814-1882), commenced serving the Country (Latvian) congregation.

 For a more detailed account of the history of the St. John’s congregation see the section – History of the Congregation

 Translated by Arnis Siksna



Didzis Kreicbergs

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