Riga – Cathedral of the Virgin Mary


   The construction of the cathedral, built on the site of the earlier monastery, was solemnly commenced in 1211, when Bishop Albert laid its cornerstone during a ceremony. The construction of the church is believed to have picked up speed in 1215, after the first cathedral church in the Old Town had been burned down. At that time, the building materials were also changed from stone to brick. In 1254, Pope Innocent IV called on local congregation to donate for construction work, and in 1266 Bishop William of Modena, the Pope’s legate, had a council in the cathedral. It is believed that by that time the chancel and the eastern part of the nave with the transept were completed and separated by a screen from the unfinished, western part of the church. The northern aisle was also partially completed, which remained narrower than the others and had semicircular windows similar to those used in the transept.
   In the second half of the thirteenth century, the second stage of construction began, as a result of which a three-aisle hall structure was created, connected by a cloister on the south side, among others with the sacristy, chapter house and refectory. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, work on the tower began, and the southern chapel of St. Elizabeth, while at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, work began on the transformation of the cathedral by raising the side walls of the central nave, thanks to which the church became a basilica. At that time, the walls of the tower were also completed, an octagonal pyramidal spire was added, and by the end of the 15th century the last side chapels were built at the aisles. T
hus completed the cathedral was the main episcopal church in Livonia until secularization in 1561. It is true that in the 15th century it was planned to rebuild the presbytery, but this idea was never carried out.
The cathedral kept its appearance until 1547, when the great fire of Riga broke out. At that time, the Gothic church tower burned, which only in 1595 received a new crown. During the siege of the city in 1710, the roof of the cathedral was severely damaged. Later, during the reconstruction works, the roof inclination of the side aisles was changed, covering the round windows, and the choir obtained the Baroque roof. In 1775, the city council of Riga ordered the demolition of the tower’s spire and the construction of a new Baroque one. From 1881 to 1914 extensive reconstruction and renovation work was carried out in the church and cloisters. As a result of these works, the cathedral and cloister have gained its present appearance. Further restoration works were carried out from 1959 to 1962 and in the 1980s.


   The cathedral was built of bricks, stones was used only in the earliest phase to erect the foundations and external corners of the building. Initially, it had the appearance of a three-aisle hall structure, but at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, when side chapels were added and the walls of the central nave were raised, it obtained the form of a four-bay, 67.9-meter-long basilica (the central nave was higher than the aisles and was illuminated with its own windows). On the eastern side of the church there was a square-like chancel from the first half of the 13th century, ended with a semicircular apse, adjacent to a short transept of the same period with three bays (38.3 x 10 meters), on the eastern side of which two shallow apses were added . The western part of the cathedral was crowned with a 14th-century Gothic, massive tower, flanked from the north and south with four-sided chapels, opened with large arcades to the interior of the nave. The northern and southern chapels, funded from the 14th to the end of the 15th century, were also opened to the nave.
   On the south side of the cathedral, a courtyard was built, on a plan similar to a square, measuring 38 x 40 meters, surrounded by Gothic cloisters with rib vaults. They provided access to the east wing, where the sacristy and the chapel of St. John, a two-aisle and three-bay chapter house, a staircase, a guard’s room and several smaller rooms, the original purpose of which has not been explained. The eastern wing was two-story since the second half of the 13th century.

Current state

   The Riga Cathedral is the largest medieval church and the oldest monumental religious building in the area of former Livonia, which influenced the further development of local architecture. It combines the features of Romanesque and early Gothic architecture and, to a lesser extent, Baroque and art nouveau architecture. One of its most valuable architectural elements are the 13th-century early Gothic cloisters, the only ones preserved in these area and one of the few in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, the cathedral serves the Latvian Evangelical-Lutheran Church, it is also a place of concerts and an object made available for tourists to visit.

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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.
Website doms.lv, Insight into History of Riga Cathedral.