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 at the outset of the 1670s, received specialised training in Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and during his years as a journeyman that took him to Danzig (Gdańsk), Stockholm and Riga.

The young and talented Ackermann initially worked in Tallinn as a journeyman under the guild master Elert Thiele. After the master’s death, Ackermann married the master’s young widow Anna Martens. According to the Church of St. Olaf’s registry of births, the young family had a child too soon after their wedding, impinging on the moral norms of Christian society. Additionally, Ackermann started fighting the guild masters for the right to work as an independent master. The correspondence that went through Tallinn’s town council between Ackermann and the guild of wood carvers and joiners very expressively reveals the positions of the quarrelling parties.

Ackermann evidently knew how much better his work was compared to that of the local masters, and so he did not want to have to reckon with the guild. When the guild masters started accusing him – Ackermann works as a non-incorporated artisan, uses the help of journeymen and in this way robs them of their livelihood! – he arrogantly declared: the local masters have no idea whatsoever what the art of woodcarving is, he could teach it to them and they would only benefit from it! Needless to say, this kind of behaviour shocked the guild masters and they complained to Tallinn’s town council that Ackermann was behaving as if he were the famous antique sculptor Phidias.

At the outset of the 1680s, Ackermann took his wife and by then already two children and left Thiele’s former house in downtown Tallinn (4 Olevimägi Street), and moved to Toompea. Exactly where Ackermann and his family of ten children lived is not known. It is, however, definitely known that it is precisely in Toompea where he received commissions from the nobility and even royal commissions.

After surviving the famine of 1695–1697 and bearing the hardships that came with the Great Northern War, Ackermann apparently died of the plague in the epidemic that broke out in 1710.

What is known about Ackermann’s workshops?

Christian Ackermann worked as an independent master for over thirty years (1674 – ca 1710). During this time he had at least two workshops, one in downtown Tallinn, the other somewhere in the area of Toompea, outside the city wall.

Ackermann acquired his first workshop through his marriage to Anna Martens, the widow of the guild master Elert Thiele. It was located at 4 Olevimägi Street and had to be partially refurnished. As the inventory of the deceased Thiele indicates, the guild master had been in debt and some of the workshop’s furnishings were sold off to cover those debts. Ackermann bought out the wood that provided the raw material and some of the tools himself.

There is no precise information concerning the location of Ackermann’s second workshop. The house was presumably located somewhere in the area of the present day Tuvi Street. It is also possible that its location is beneath the eastern side of the current Estonian National Library.

Ackermann did not work alone. He had many helpers, including joiners and painters.

Over the years, the master’s distinctive mode of expression became more pointed and the style of his works became more rigid, as a comparison of his sculptures confirms.

The high quality of this master’s work brought him many prestigious commissions from near and far.

What is the body of Ackermann’s works like?

Based on style, about 20 works of wood carving have been ascribed to Ackermann. Of them, only the retable of Tallinn’s cathedral is verified documentarily: the document concerning the payment made to Ackermann for the work he had performed, signed by Axel Julius de la Gardie, the Governor General of Estland at that time.

Although Ackermann worked on land belonging to Tallinn and Toompea, works commissioned from him made their way to many Estonian churches.

The retable of Tallinn’s cathedral (1694–1696), the largest retable in Estonia, which also has the most interesting iconographic programme, is the masterpiece of Ackermann and his team. Alongside the retable that once bore the initials of King Charles XI of Sweden, the pulpit of Tallinn’s cathedral that is attributed to this independent master together with the memorial coats of arms of nobles in that church all merit attention, as do the retables of the churches in Hageri, Järva-Madise, Martna, Türi, Simuna and Vigala, the pulpits of the churches in Juuru, Karuse, Rapla and many others, the tablet for displaying hymn numbers in Tallinn’s Church of the Holy Spirit, and a few sculptures that have survived individually.

Not all of Ackermann’s works have survived. The Märjamaa Church retable attributed to Ackermann, the composition and quality of which was exceptional, was destroyed in the Second World War.

It can also be presumed that carved picture frames and furniture, which were so popular in the baroque era, were also ordered from Ackermann’s workshop, but these have not survived – the furnishings of private houses are very sensitive to fashion compared to those of churches, and for this reason they are also subject to quicker replacement.

At the same time, it is clear that almost all of Ackermann’s works have been reconstructed or redesigned over the subsequent three centuries (see the descriptions of the altar of Tallinn’s cathedral and other objects).