The Famous Ruins of Estonia: Pirita Convent

The churche in Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.

Her dream was unusual. She would be the founder and the head of a new Catholic Order. Its convents would be a home for both monks and nuns. They would be living separately, but be attending services together in one church. They would be poor, but could have as many books as they wanted.

Such a dream had visited a noble Swedish lady, Birgitta Birgersdotter, around 1345. After 25 years, she got permission from the Pope to establish the Order of the Most Holy Saviour (1370) and to start building monasteries. Sixty years later, her third community, Pirita Convent, was completed on the banks of the Pirita River where it flows into the Gulf of Finland, and became the largest nunnery in Old Livonia.

***

St. Bridget of Sweden had never been to this convent, just as she never visited her other monasteries. In 1350, despite the epidemic of the plague in Europe, she, her daughter Catherine (who later was also canonized as Catherine of Vadstena; note: one family—two saints), and a whole entourage of priests and disciples went to Rome to get the Pope’s endorsement for the Rule of her Order.

She waited 20 years for this authorization, but the long wait had its plus side. It seems that Birgitta so enjoyed living in Italy that she never returned to her homeland, and, until the end of her life in 1373, she developed her monastery network directly from the Eternal City. Such a decision is understandable. Compare the cuisine and climate of Sweden with the cuisine and climate of Italy. Obviously, it is much more pleasant to do charity work and to criticize irregularities in religious practices while living under the warm sun of the latter.

Birgitta so zealously denounced the church’s numerous deviations from the covenants of Christ that some historians consider her a forerunner of the Reformation. Even Martin Luther called her “crazy Birgitta.” In 1390, Pope Boniface IX canonized her. She is the patroness of Sweden and one of the six patron saints of Europe.

***

Pirit is one of the most popular female names in Estonia deriving from the Swedish Birgitta or English Bridget. In the place where the Pirita River flows into the Gulf of Finland (in the district of Pirita in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, today) St. Bridget’s Convent (or Pirita Convent) lies in ruins for five hundred years already.

The churche in Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.
Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.

Someday, historians will write the full “biography” of this unusual monastery, but now, Estonian archaeologists are trying to restore it with excavations. We know that St. Bridget’s Convent near Reval (the former name of Tallinn) was functional for 150 years, and on January 30, 1575, it was destroyed by the army of the Russian Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, during the Livonian War.

According to the rules written by Birgitta, up to 60 nuns and 25 monks could live in a monastery under the guidance of the abbess. The living quarters of men and women were located on opposite sides of the main church which was a common territory. Seven times a day, nuns and monks gathered together to sing praise to the Lord; however, they could not see each other.

Ironically, though far from the two Christian capitals—the Vatican and Constantinople—the idea of shared divine service of nuns and monks has caught on, and in the Middle Ages, the Order had more than thirty monasteries in the territory of modern Scandinavia.

Flourishing guilds of Reval merchants became the founders of the St. Bridget’s monastery. In 1407, two monks from the Abbey of Our Lady and of St. Bridget, Sweden, arrived in Reval to help in the creation of the new monastery. A plot of land in a picturesque area near the road from Reval to Narva was presented to the future convent by the Livonian Order. At that time, the Pirita River was the border of Reval.

The builders waited a decade for official permission for the extraction of dolomite for the church’s walls. When the construction began, its pace was directly dependent on donations. Apparently, the monks from Sweden were very patient. Thirty years later, around 1436, the main monastic building, one of the largest churches of northern Europe, was finally consecrated.

Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.

We know very little about the life of the novices of the joint monastery. All that has survived from the monastery library is one page of a calendar. There are no economic accounts or descriptions of life in the community, but the archival records of rich citizens of Reval, the parishioners of the monastery church, were preserved. Thanks to them we know that nuns never left the monastery, and were engaged in reading, needlework, housekeeping, and choral singing of psalms. They remained within the walls of the monastery even after death.

The life of the monks was less strict. They could leave the convent and preach in other churches. Saved records attest that the church of the Convent of St. Birgitta could not accommodate all the visitors coming here from all over Livonia in the days of great festivities.

After the Russian invasion, the monastery lay in ruins for 400 years. Yet, the Pirita Convent ruins were not consigned to oblivion. Estonians treat their historical heritage carefully and sometimes creatively. Take for example the recently opened Estonian Maritime Museum where you may not only see a real submarine under the museum’s dome, but also visit it. By the way, this is the most visited museum of Tallinn.

Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.
The map of Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.

The map of Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.

Systematic archaeological researches in Pirita Convent began in 1930. Today, excavations are completed in the women’s section of the monastery where the basements and the first floor are well preserved. Archaeologists have determined the appointment of most of the premises. Even a couple of stairs to the second floor and the living rooms of nuns survived the centuries. The man’s section of the monastery is still waiting for its researchers.

The Pirita Convent ruins have been turned into an open-air park museum. In 2001, on the border of the park, near the stone fence of the old monastery, a new monastery was opened where nuns of the Swedish branch of the Bridgettine Order live.

Click to enlarge the map of Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.
Click to enlarge the map of Pirita Convent Ruins Park, Tallinn, Estonia.
A grave stone in the Pirita Convent. Estonia.

Open-air concerts are held in the walls of the former church, and this is not accidental. Regular chants of the joint choir of nuns and monks in the Middle Ages were remembered by parishioners. We know it from chronicles they left. Modern Estonians consider that monastic choir the first national chorus of their country. You might say those medieval “concerts” took place in one of the largest concert halls of northern Europe of those times. Its area was 1300 square meters. The dimensions of the church in Pirita are 24×56 meters. Even Reval did not have anything similar.

The most famous modern performance in the Pirita Convent Ruins Park is the Birgitta Festival of music held here annually in August. Guests enjoy music by G. Verdi, J. Haydn, N. Rimski-Korsakov, G. Puccini, M. Ravel, and other great composers, in the glow of torchlight inside of the stone walls of the medieval church, the most famous ruins of Estonia.