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  • Writer's pictureGreg Leighton

Crusader Art and Architecture in the Baltic

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the crusades is the immense castles and churches associated with them. This holds true for nearly every region in which holy wars were waged. Of course, most are familiar with the great castle of the Hospitallers at Krak des Chevaliers (Hosn al Akrad, Syria), the castles dotting the north of Spain like Calatrava la Vieja, or even examples in between, like the massive fortified churches of Transylvania, which fended off the invasions of the Ottomans in the fifteenth century.

In the Baltic region there was a rich artistic culture associated directly with the arrival of Christianity in the late twelfth century. The first stone buildings in Livonia (present-day Latvia and Estonia), for example, were built as a product of the missionary work by St Meinhard of Segeberg (d. 1196), the first Bishop of Livonia. His church, Uexkuell (Ikšķile), in Latvia, is pictured below. These buildings were the early spiritual centres in the landscape. St Meinhard, when he died, was buried here, as was his successor, Berthold of Loccum, who was killed by the Livonians somewhere near the city of Riga in 1198.

St Meinhard's Church, Uexkuell. Photograph taken by G Leighton.

In the southern Baltic and the area of the Teutonic Knights, historically known as (east) Prussia (Ostpreussen), the Order's redbrick castles are one of the most distinctive elements of crusading's legacy there. For one, they are the visual reminders to those who view them. The great castle at Marienburg (Malbork), mentioned in my other blog post on 'Crusading and Religious Geography (ies)', evokes a strong sense of wonder to the casual viewer. 'Why is this magnificent building here?' 'Who sculpted these church portals?' 'Who painted these walls?' and 'Who was the man who lived here? (i.e. the Grand Master, who had a private palace in the castle complex)'

The Golden Gate. Entrance to the Chapel of the Virgin at Marienburg. Photograph taken by G Leighton.

In asking those questions, one is reminded of the intense political and military strife that occurred in this area of eastern Europe during the First, but primarily during the Second World War. Pictured below is Marienburg after the surrender of the German Army in 1945. The castle was virtually destroyed, and to see the pictures today make one reflect on the immense labour of conservation and restoration works that have taken place at the castle over the decades.

Marienburg castle (1945). Photograph: Muzeum Zamkowe w Malborku

The architecture of the medieval Baltic is, in a way, blessed by those who have worked as its conservators over the centuries, particularly Marienburg. It's really because of their work that we have the buildings (or, in some cases, photographs) of them today. Perhaps one of the most well known of these was Prof. Conrad Emmanuel Steinbrecht (1849-1923), who oversaw the conservation efforts of the castle for more than 20 years. He was also responsible for the work uncovering the (now destroyed) frescoes at the smaller castle to the north of Marienburg, called Lochstedt (present-day Pawlowo, Kaliningrad oblast', Russian Federation). The castle was a relatively small building, not nearly the size of Marienburg, but it remains by far one of the best examples of late medieval art in the Baltic region and has many parallels to the visual programme at Marienburg. One of Steinbrecht's photographs is provided below. His works on the restoration of these castles remain invaluable, and a testament to the passion with which he undertook his duties.

Fresco depicting the Crucifixion, Lochstedt, c. 1390. Photograph courtesy of Bild Foto Marburg.

It is thanks to the works of conservators like Steinbrecht and others that we even have most of the things that we do on the remarkable medieval art of the Baltic region. The role of the artistic programme and visual culture of the Teutonic Order in the region is applied to some of the most well-known pieces of scholarship on the region, demonstrating their value to the historian seeking to unravel this oftentimes exotic, alien region. The great scholar on the later crusades to Prussia, Werner Paravicini (Kiel), 'the Prussian journeys of the European nobility' (Die Preussenreisen des europaeischen Adels, 2 vols. 1989, 1995), analysed in detail the visual programme of the medieval churches and cathedrals of Prussia to gain insight into the spiritual motives of the knights who journeyed there. He relied primarily on Steinbrecht's work (in addition to the German art historian, Georg Dehio, d. 1932), demonstrating the value of these efforts.

The album above was taken by me in the summer of 2016, when I last visited Marienburg. This was the year in which the last major renovations were completed to the Chapel of the Virgin, an undertaking whose contribution to scholarship on the Order is pretty much indescribable. The visit had a profound effect on me, as I had only seen photographs in books and publications, and was unable to visit it on my own. Ever since, my interest has been sparked with respect to the unique qualities of art in the medieval Baltic, indeed what one could call 'crusader art', to some extent. The experience also opened my eyes to the immense significance of conservation works and their potential for aiding historical research, an area I am excited to contribute to in the future.

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