Who was Christian Ackermann?

Christian Ackermann was the most scandalous and most talented woodcarver of the baroque age in Estonia.

Ackermann, who arrived in Tallinn in the first half of the 1670s, was born in Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and received his primary training there. He later headed for Danzig (Gdańsk), and from there onward to Stockholm and Riga for his apprenticeship and journeyman years.

Upon his arrival in Tallinn, he was a trained journeyman sculpture carver. He sought a place to live and a job that corresponded to his skills. He found his place in the house of the widow of the recently deceased woodcarver and master cabinetmaker Elert Thiele in the Olevimägi district (at 4 Olevimägi Street). Less than a year after the old master’s death, Christian Ackermann married Thiele’s young widow Anna Martens, who had by then already become pregnant by him. The child was born in September, five months after their marriage. This earned the community’s contempt. Additionally, Ackermann annoyed the local artisans by refusing to join the cabinetmakers’ guild, of which his predecessor Elert Thiele had been a member.

Why did a quarrel break out between Ackermann and the cabinetmakers’ guild?

The cabinetmakers’ guild considered Ackermann to be an immigrant who married a master’s widow while he himself was still a journeyman. He inherited the master’s workshop, he did not intend to join the guild, a child was born to him who had been conceived before his marriage – all this was an egregious violation of the customs that were in effect at that time. When Ackermann was hired by St. Nicholas’ Church and he asked an assistant from Riga to come work with him, the local cabinetmakers’ guild brought a court case against Ackermann, demanding that the town council punish the interloper Bönhase (this is what masters who worked outside of the guild were called). The displeasure of the cabinetmakers did not intimidate Ackermann. Instead, he started fighting for his rights.

Ackermann evidently knew how much better his work was compared to that of local masters. He did not want to submit to the guild. He arrogantly declared that the local masters knew nothing about the art of woodcarving and were also not competent to assess the quality of his works. The guild masters accused Ackermann of arrogance and complained that Ackermann was behaving as if he were the famous antique sculptor Phidias.

To the guild’s surprise, the town council sided with Ackermann, signing a decision on 9 March 1677 that allowed Ackermann to work as an independent master, to hire journeymen, and to recruit them from elsewhere beyond Tallinn.

How did the independent master Ackermann’s subsequent fate develop?

His quarrel with the cabinetmakers had been resolved but debts inherited from his predecessor Elert Thiele threatened Ackermann. His fees were still initially those typical of artisans and they were insufficient for coping with his inherited obligations. Ackermann sold his house in 1679 and settled down in Toompea. His fame grew and his job opportunities expanded. At the same time, more and more children were born into the family and larger commissions forced him to hire more assistants. Economic difficulties continued to be part of the everyday life of Ackermann’s family. When a great fire devastated Toompea in 1684, Ackermann’s property and workshop were also destroyed. The master had to once again find a new place for himself to live and work.

In 1705, we find Ackermann living in Tõnismäe, where he also had his workshop. In 1707, he had left that house yet was still located somewhere in the near vicinity. He became a godfather of a child of one of his colleagues in the summer of that same year, and received remuneration for carving the Swedish St. Michael’s Church pulpit.

What became of Christian Ackermann and his family?

It is not known what became of Christian Ackermann after 1707. It has been believed that he was in Tallinn until the plague of 1710 and additionally created the epitaph for Pastor Johann Gottfried Stecher of St. Nicholas’ Church during the plague. It can be assumed that he died of the plague together with wife. Only a fifth of the city’s population survived that particular plague epidemic. There is no information from later times regarding the independent master Ackermann and the greater portion of his family. One of the ten children who had been born into the family was still alive in Tallinn in the years after the plague. It can be speculated that three persons were Ackermann’s descendants, yet it is only Christian Ackermann’s oeuvre that most definitely lived on.

Sten Karling has proposed a fascinating possibility regarding the subsequent fate of Ackermann’s descendants. He speculated that Christian Ackermann, who became the Hannover court sculptor in 1737, could have been Christian Ackermann the Younger, who was born in 1681 as the son of Tallinn’s sculptor. Christian as a forename and Ackermann as a surname are admittedly very common in Europe’s German-speaking regions, yet since there are no concrete counterarguments, there is no reason to refute Karling’s speculation.

What is known about Ackermann’s workshops?

Christian Ackermann worked as an independent master for over thirty years (1674 – circa 1710). Over that period of time, he had at least three workshops, one in Tallinn’s lower town, another in Toompea, and a third in Tõnismäe.

Where was Ackermann’s first workshop located?

Ackermann acquired his first workshop when he married Anna Martens, the widow of the guild master Elert Thiele. It was located at 4 Olevimägi Street. As the inventory of the deceased Thiele demonstrates, the workshop was abundantly equipped. At least initially, a bountiful selection of tools of that time (drills, planers, saws, axes), workbenches (cutting benches and carpenter’s benches), and all manner of working materials and implements, starting with glue and ending with screws, were all at his disposal. Unfortunately, the tools did not remain in Ackermann’s possession for long. The tools were taken away from him in the course of his quarrel with the cabinetmakers and only a few items were left to him. The town council later forced the local cabinetmakers to pay for the tools since they were part of Thiele’s inheritance proceedings and belonged to all of his heirs, who included Thiele’s children from his first marriage in addition to his widow.

Ackermann acquired a quite a large quantity of wood (blocks of oak and linden, and boards of linden) for a large sum of money (20 riksdalers) from Thiele’s house in addition to household items and clothing. He acquired few tools. Some of them were mentioned simply as ‘tools’ without further specification, yet he had purchased them for a relatively large sum of money (3 riksdalers). Additionally, he acquired two cutting benches (for 2 riksdalers), glue, and a file. Ackermann also obtained for his own use the pattern sheets and engravings left behind by Thiele, which woodcarvers used as models.

What is known about Ackermann’s second and third workshops?

Ackermann set up his second workshop in Toompea at the end of 1679 or the start of 1680. He probably took all the tools he had acquired from Thiele’s inheritance along with him from his previous workshop, along with the additional tools he had acquired himself during the intervening years. The new owner of his house and workshop in Olevimägi was a French teacher and harbourmaster who did not need the tools of the woodcarver or the cabinetmaker. It is not known exactly where in Toompea Ackermann’s workshop was situated, yet since it burned down at the time of the great fire of 1684, it had to be located in the area surrounded by Toompea’s wall.

Ackermann established his third workshop in Tõnismäe. His house was somewhere in the vicinity of the current Tuvi Street, or it was located in the area that is currently covered by the eastern side of the present day Estonian National Library. Ackermann lived in house no. 50 as a tenant. The house had one warm room and a workroom, which could similarly be heated. Additionally, the house had a small room that could not be heated. The large room was roughly 6 x 5 metres. The house was built of logs and had a board roof or sod roof. It resembled other houses in the area in terms of its living conditions. Ackermann often worked at home, even when he was working on large objects. He ordinarily worked together with a journeyman and an apprentice, but he could have had more assistants for larger jobs. One or two journeymen and just as many apprentices consistently lived with the master. His dwelling was probably a sculptor’s workshop in the first place, and his large family had to find space for living in between objects that were necessary for work.

What does the sphere of Ackermann’s works look like?

About 20 works of woodcarving art have been ascribed to Ackermann judging by their style. The greater portion of his surviving works are by their nature church art (with the exception of the interior door in Höpner’s house).

Ackermann’s authorship has been documentarily verified in reference to individual works:

  • Retable of Tallinn’s Cathedral: the contract concerning the hiring of Ackermann has been preserved.
  • Märjamaa Church altar: Ackermann’s letter to a creditor has been preserved where Ackermann mentions that when he finishes the Märjamaa altar he will gain the opportunity to pay off his debt.
  • Johan Andreas von der Pahlen’s coat-of-arms epitaph in Tallinn’s Cathedral: its contract has been preserved.
  • The Swedish St. Michael’s Church pulpit: the corresponding entry is in the church’s account book.

Additionally, there is documented information on several other works, concerning the appearance of which we have no idea whatsoever (since these works have perished and no photographs of them have survived).

  • The Haljala or Rakvere Church retable and pulpit: a complaint has been preserved concerning procrastinating with the work.
  • Heinrich von Thieren’s coat-of-arms epitaph in Tallinn’s St. Nicholas’ Church: entry in the church’s account book.
  • The door to St. Anthony’s Chapel in Tallinn’s St. Nicholas’ Church: entry in the church’s account book.
  • The organ loft in Tallinn’s St. Nicholas’ Church: mentioned in documents on Elert Thiele’s inheritance dispute.
  • A coach for Major von Henninghausen: letter from the coachmaker Tobias Heidel concerning delays in the work.

The retable of Tallinn’s Cathedral (1694–1696) is the masterpiece of Ackermann and his workshop. This is Estonia’s largest retable with the most interesting iconographic programme in the country. It was completed in the course of the restoration of what was the most important church in Estland at that time after it had suffered fire damage. Based on critical stylistic analysis, the corpus of the pulpit of Tallinn’s Cathedral as well as the church’s Calvary have been attributed to Ackermann.

The following works in Estland’s other churches have been attributed to Ackermann: the retables in the churches in Hageri, Järva-Madise, Martna, Türi, Simuna and Vigala, the pulpits in the churches in Juuru, Karuse, Rapla and several other localities, the dial of Tallinn’s Church of the Holy Spirit clock, and a few sculptures that have singly been preserved.