Why was the Märjamaa Church retable an important commission for Ackermann?

Financial worries and debts constantly beset Christian Ackermann in his youth during the first period of his creative career. The fee he received for carving the Märjamaa Church retable in 1689 saved the independent master from his more serious debt problems.

Who commissioned the retable from Ackermann for Märjamaa Church and when was it commissioned?

The renovation of Märjamaa Church began in 1683 at the latest when its roof and windows were replaced. Yet thereafter the work dragged on, and the renovation was not completed until Anton Friedrich von Saltza became the church’s churchwarden. Thanks to him, the church’s debtors paid off their debts and the money required for renovating the church was acquired.

Anton Friedrich von Saltza gave the new altar retable to the church as a gift together with his wife Dorothea von Taube.

The carved coats-of-arms of the donors were mounted on the retable, and the following was written on the rood-screen: ‘In honour of God and for the beauty of the church. Donated by the high-born, strong, steadfast, and courageous Lord Antony Friedrich von Saltza, Lord of Paeküla and Lehtse manors, Infantry Captain who has served His Royal Majesty the King of Sweden, and the high-born and virtuous F. Dorothea Taube.’

In what does the uniqueness and specific character of the Märjamaa Church retable lie?

The retable completed in Christian Ackermann’s workshop in 1689 differed from all known previous altar retables in Estonian territory. Its design consisted primarily of ornamentation, in the middle of which was an oval panel bearing the picture Christ on the Cross, and carved figures on its sides and top.

Of what did the floral ornamentation carved as decoration for the retable speak?

Interest in nature and the plant kingdom, which symbolised genesis and ephemerality, and was characteristic of Ackermann’s time and of the early modern period more broadly, was expressed in flowers and plants. The depiction of flowers and plants provided the artist with the opportunity to put his skills in emulating nature to the test.

Ackermann had carved similar exquisite flower motifs for the living room door portal in the house belonging to the merchant Höppner in Tallinn, for the Vigala Church retable, and for various coat-of-arms epitaphs before setting to work on the Märjamaa Church retable.

Flowers were expensive and their depiction on the altar in the picture frame or also as bouquets above the figures of Moses and John the Baptist, and beneath the feet of Christ, who crowned the whole retable, expressed a decorously solemn attitude towards what was being depicted.

Additionally, flowers bore different meanings: grapevines on the retable spoke of eternal life through faith in Christ, sunflowers spoke of God’s love, while roses spoke of love in general and of Christ’s blood, in other words of his sacrificial death. All in all, flowers as part of nature bore the message of the insignificance of human life.

What other kind of ornamentation did Ackermann use in 1689?

Ackermann carved an extension consisting of auricular and lobate ornamentation around the retable’s oval painting panel. It is as spatial and azure as possible and is furnished with many little holes, enabling the light entering from the church’s eastern window to shine through the retable, making the entire composition more illusory.

The sculptor placed large acanthus leaves that were carved true to nature above the retable’s ornamentation composed of twisting-warping-curling motifs. Similarly to floral ornamentation, the use of acanthus leaves was becoming very fashionable.

In what sense do the figures decorating the retable stand out?

The figure of Christ the Invincible bearing a victory flag and treading on the serpent crowns the Märjamaa Church retable as was traditional. The angels with trumpets situated on either side of the Redeemer bear witness to the idea that Christ, who has vanquished death and sin, already belongs to the heavenly spheres.

Ackermann applied his previous work experiences and skills in carving the figures for the Märjamaa Church retable – Christ, the angels, as well as Moses the Prophet and John the Baptist – creatively developing his skills further.

The existence of the same kind of statue of John the Baptist on the stair balustrade of the Tilsit (Sovetsk) Church pulpit, for instance, indicates that Ackermann used the assistance of printed examples in doing his work.

The same kind of putto corbel that served as the base for Christ the Invincible, like the one that existed in Märjamaa, can also be seen in the Järva-Madise Church retable, which was completed at a later time in Ackermann’s workshop. Ackermann had carved a similar statue of Moses in 1686 for the pulpit of Tallinn’s Cathedral. At the same time, features that resembled the figures of St. Peter on the previously completed retables at Simuna and Vigala spread to the clothing of Moses at Märjamaa, who was depicted with horns consisting of curled hair and shown carrying the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.

What happened to the Altar of Märjamaa Church

The entire church perished along with the altar and the retable during World War II in 1941.

The photographs of the retable were sourced from a project, during which art historians Otto Kletzl and Richald Hammann-Mac Lean photographed a big portion of Estonian cultural treasures with the goal of documenting the border areas on the fringe of the German Reich.