Since December, people in Tallinn, Estonia have been able to climb a 10-metre wooden set of stairs and come face to face with the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the Four Evangelists and Jesus Christ as well as other baroque sculptures adorning the 17th century altar of St Mary’s Cathedral in the heart of the upper city in medieval Tallinn. The students of the Estonian Academy of Arts have built a gigantic black staircase-scaffolding-installation around the altar of the church in order to help conservation experts to gain access to the the nine metre high wooden baroque altar carved by the talented and controversial baroque master Christian Ackermann. For Christmas, the huge installation was transformed into a kind of advent calendar, with the rows of pathways slowly filling with christmas trees.

The project has received praise from both conservators and the church congregation alike. The head of the conservation project, Estonian Academy of Arts Conservation Department Associate Professor Hilkka Hiiop explains that the idea to develop the staircase project was inspired by the feeling that regular scaffolding too often dominates the inside of a church or any other heritage building, and feels out of sync with its environment. The conservators and the church also thought that building a different, more substantial installation would also allow visitors to climb up and get a completely different vista of the church interior as well as a much closer view of the altar sculptures. The scaffolding installation was designed by Estonian Academy of Arts interior architecture students after a week-long workshop focussing on the history and context of the location.

Commenting on the project, the head of the interior architecture department of the academy, professor Hannes Praks said that the department loves choosing co-operation projects that push students to dive into uncharted waters: be it historical, cultural or spatial. The workshop at Tallinn Dome which resulted in the dramatic black installation began with a thorough look into the rich history of the church, especially the big 1684 fire that destroyed most of the interior (and in fact much of the rest of Old Tallinn Toompea), allowing sculptor Christian Ackermann to secure a large scale new altar commission, thus launching his career.

CHRISTIAN ACKERMANN was the most scandalous and talented woodcarver of the Baroque era Estonia. Ackermann received his professional training in Königsberg (Kaliningrad), and while travelling through Danzig (Gdańsk), Stockholm and Riga during his journeyman years. In the beginning of 1680s, Ackermann moved to Toompea with his family where he soon started working on commission from the local nobility and even from the Royal Court. In 1684, after the great fire of Toompea, Ackermann prepared a new pulpit (1686); a retable bearing the initials of Karl XI of Sweden (1694 – 1696) and numerous coat of arms epitaphs for St Mary’s Cathedral, Tallinn. He also executed orders for other churches in Estonia, several retables and pulpits created by Ackermann have survived to our days.

His reputation as a superb craftsman has not only worked for Ackermann’s favor, but also against. Therefore, it is still uncertain whether the works attributed to Ackermann are in fact all his creations, or whether the carvings of some unknown master could actually have been made by his hand.

The aim of the ongoing research project is to identify the nature of Ackermann’s retable in close-up, and to find out how closely does it relate to his other works. The investigations are carried out by an interdisciplinary group of professionals who are implementing the most modern technologies in their research. In addition to the altar wall at St Mary’s Cathedral, all pulpits, baptistery, retables and other valuable art objects attributed to Ackermann will be examined in the coming years.

The conservation research project looking into the altar is led by historian and Ackermann expert Tiina-Mall Kreem from the Art Museum of Estonia, conservators Hilkka Hiiop and Isabel Aaso-Zahradnikova from Estonian Academy of Arts, art historians Anneli Randla and Juhan Kilumets. Estonian Academy of Arts conservation students are also involved in the project. Visitors planning to climb to the top of the installation have to book a tour by calling the church at +372 644 4140 or by e-mailing

3D Images of the sculptures

Additional information:

Hilkka Hiiop

Associate Professor of the Estonian Academy of Arts Cultural Heritage and Conservation Department

+372 565 779 80

For the Press

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Posted by Maris Veeremäe

Cultural Heritage and Conservation