This is a tale about one of my favorite locations in Riga — St. Peter’s Church. Originally built in 1209, this building is considered one of best examples of medieval architecture in all of the Baltic States. Standing through the past eight centuries, St. Peter’s has persevered throughout modern history and carried herself into the twenty-first century with beauty and grace. Imagine what she has seen and heard through all this time — if walls could talk!
First, I think it is appropriate if we explore a brief history of the building. One of the most interesting tidbits about St. Peter’s is the story surrounding the multiple versions of her wooden tower. Sitting around 120 meters tall, the tower has collapsed multiple times. Originally, the tower was completed at the end of the 15th century but had already collapsed by 1666. It was rebuilt before being struck down by lightning in the 1700’s. Then, after being rebuilt again, it burned down during World War II. Finally, the most recent renovation of the tower ironically occurred during Soviet times. In 1967 a renovation started with the intention to build an observation deck and demarcate the site as more of a cultural location than religious center. This is the version of the tower that we can see today.
The other distinct thing about St. Peter’s (and all historic Latvian, Christian churches) is the use of a gilded rooster weather vane at the top of the steeple. Since the 15th century there have been a total of seven rooster vanes atop St. Peter’s. In 1970 the newest rooster was perched as a gift to the 800th anniversary of the church. However, St. Peter’s bird is just one of the “Riga Roosters.” This icon is representative of the patron saint of the city and thought to drive away evil. You can see the symbol reappropriated on gifts for tourists and has become symbolically akin to the city.
A special place to see some of this history first-hand is from the top! I have visited the observation tower a couple of times now and it is always a delight. Not only can you get a bird’s eye view of the maze that Old Town is, but you can see across the Daugava river as well. I have now perfected the best time to get to the top and swear that 4:00pm on a clear day will provide the most beautiful golden glow on Riga’s red clay roofs.
Today, St. Peter’s is mainly used for concerts and art exhibitions. A cultural center of the city, it aims to serve the artistic community and bring others into appreciation of the building. This is something I’ve personally experienced as well. Visiting this church often during my time here has provided many points of reflection. Specifically, three of my favorite moments in the space have been visiting an exhibit about Latvia’s role in World War I, an exhibit about Latvian handcrafts, and attending a percussion concert dedicated to Baltic composers.
The World War I exhibit was especially interesting as it outlined the stories of Latvians that fought in multiple fronts of the war. Since the area we now consider “Latvia” was unborn and still part of the Soviet Union during the Great War, they experienced the trials of fighting in both the Eastern and Western sectors of the conflict. The exhibit also included combat boots, military uniforms, and the possessions of soldiers that have been preserved for over 100 years.
As I’ve learned, handcrafts in Latvia are an important part of culture and art. A second exhibit I enjoyed was one on Latvian handcrafts. It showcased brilliant examples of clothing, art, and mittens made in the traditional style. To learn about the fine skills that are needed to produce such quality pieces while being educated on what their designs and colors represent gave me a better appreciation for Latvian clothing.
However, this space isn’t just for art. Some of my favorite experiences at St. Peter’s so far have been when I have attended and performed in music concerts there. In fact, my very first experience in the church was playing a concert with my orchestra last September. It was a great acoustic place to play in and overall provided a wonderful atmosphere. Likewise, the percussion concert that my roommates and I attended after Riga’s independence day celebration on November 18th, 2018 was especially memorable as it was a performance dedicated to Baltic composers. Put on by members of Latvian National Symphony Orchestra, this small breakout concert was the final event we attended during the busy November 18th celebratory weekend and a great cap to the day. Performing a series of new and old pieces, the percussion ensemble intentionally included music composed by mostly Latvians, as well as a famous rendition of “Spiegel im Spiegel” by the renowned Estonian, Arvo Pärt.
Sitting there while listening to the pieces that mainly emulated the beloved Latvian countryside and aesthetic of nature, I realized this music was being performed in a building that seemed as old as time itself. Latvia as a place was being depicted for the audience through a distinct sound painting. In that moment, I felt I truly understood the importance of allowing yourself to settle into a space that can best emulate the whole context of an artistic experience.
This is in part what draws me back to St. Peter’s again and again. It is a building that represents so much for this country. It is a building that has been carried forward from the past and hopefully will be carried into the future. It is a building that houses culture in all of its forms. And, because of all of these things, it is so much more than just a building.