The church of St. Michael in Johvi appeared for the first time in sources in 1364, in relation with the invasion of Novgorod the Great. It had to be built earlier, probably in the mid-fourteenth century. In 1426, the Cistercians sold their land in the parish of Johvi to the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order, which from then on took over the patronage of the church. In the fifteenth or at the beginning of the sixteenth century, it was rebuilt, the tower was added, the interior was vaulted and the whole was fortified.
The church often was destroyed during the wars: at the beginning of the Livonian War in 1558 and during the Great Northern War in 1703. According to tradition, at the hands of soldiers of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, over a hundred peasants were to be killed in the church. In 1728 it was rebuilt, and in 1748 it received the baroque crowning of the tower, replaced in 1875 by the present, neo-Gothic one. The last war damages affected the building in 1941. Later it remained in ruins for quite a long time, as it was not rebuilt until 1984.
The church was erected as an exceptionally large aisleless structure, with internal dimensions of 35.1 x 13.8 meters. As it initially had a defensive function, it had small, narrow windows and was surrounded by an earth rampart with a palisade. After the rebuilding at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, it additionally received timber hoardings or defensive porches surrounding the external façades of the church, and an ammunition store and an armory were arranged over the vaults. On the west side, a defensive-observation tower partially embedded in the nave was added.
The walls of the church were not supported from the outside with buttresses, but in a way rarely found in Estonia, they were pulled into the interior of the building, where a vault was based on them, creating magnificent ogival arcades between the bays. The external façades remained smooth, separated only by lancet windows.
Inside the church, under the altar, there were two basement rooms with the function of a crypt and a chapel, originally covered with a ceiling, then vaulted. Two passages from the presbytery led to them. This solution, still derived from the Romanesque tradition, was quite unusual and rare in Estonia.
Today, the church is one of the largest survived Gothic, aisleless churches in Estonia. Currently it is adapted to visits, there is a museum in it, placed in two underground rooms, presenting archaeological finds, among others the oldest metal elements from Estonia from the tombs in Jäbara. The church also hosts concerts due to its excellent acoustics.
Alttoa K., Bergholde-Wolf A., Dirveiks I., Grosmane E., Herrmann C., Kadakas V., Ose J., Randla A., Mittelalterlichen Baukunst in Livland (Estland und Lettland). Die Architektur einer historischen Grenzregion im Nordosten Europas, Berlin 2017.