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St. John`s Church of Cesis

Location: N57° 18` 43.6", E25° 16` 17.5" | Website: cesujana.lelb.lv/

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Saint John’s church is the second most significant architectural monument in Cesis (after the medieval castle), and it is one of the oldest medieval architectural monuments in Latvia. It is one of the oldest and mightiest sacral cult buildings in Latvia.

Cesis St. John’s church is the biggest medieval basilica outside Riga. Church is 65m long and 32m wide three-sphere basilica, preceded by a massive 65m tall bell tower from western side with 15m high gothic style spike.

The church was built in the 13th century – during the ruling time of the second Riga archbishop Johann von Loewe. It was consecrated in 24th June of 1284 as the Dome church of Livonian Order.

The church has been named after John the Baptist – St. John’s church – and it has been the Dome church of Livonian Order. During the time it has served both as Catholic and Lutheran church.  

At the beginning of Livonian Order, church services were held in church chapel, but when the power of the order strengthened and the city became the residency of the masters and became capital city of the order, it was required to have respectable stone church. At those times it was not only a sign of power but also wealth.

At the beginning of the 16th century, when the reformation started, the church was demolished by civilians. Icons and statues of the saints got destroyed.

In the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries – “glory days” of Livonia – the biggest flourishing of Cesis city and John’s church started, when one of the most vivid figures stepped up in the position of the master – Wolter von Plettenberg, thanks to whom the church started evangelical preaching in 1524.

It has been told that the church worked as stables for horses of Ivan the Terrible in 1577, during Livonian war. Besides, as the result of Livonian was in 1582, Cesis and the church fall into hands of Poles, and counter-reformation starts during their ruling time. In this year, the King of Poland - Stephen Báthory – founded Livonian diocese, and St. John’s church became the cathedral of catholic bishop of Inflanty (i.e., Pārdaugava duchy).

St. John’s church was one of the first churches in territory of Latvia, where townsfolk focused on reformation, and the church became one of the reformation centers in Northern Latvia. At the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century – during the counter-reformation it became a residency for Catholic bishops. Jesuit order was actively working in church during this period, whose board was also located in Cesis.

Cesis catholic bishops Andreas Patricius Nidecki (1583-1587) and Otto Schenking (1587-1621) were working in St. John’s church. In 1620, Erdmann Tolgsdorf, who was a member of Jesuit board, was buried in the church, which in Latvian literature is known as the translator of the first Latvian book – Catholic catechism by Peter Canisius.

From 1615-1620, priest George Egler was actively working in Cesis. After the Swedish – Polish war, Vidzeme falls in property of Sweden – in 1672, Cesis catholic diocese with Cesis city and St. John’s church was received by Axel - the chancellor of Sweden, as a gift from the king of Sweden – Gustav II Adolf. The church has been on fire for several times together with the city – in 1568, 1640, 1655, 1671 and 1694.

In the 17th century – during the Polish-Swedish war, church was demolished by Polish army, and after the fire in 1607, there were only walls left from it. Since 1626, after the order from Vidzeme superintendent Hermann Samson, Lutheranism recovery was started in Cesis, and in 1629 St. John’s church was given to Lutherans. Extensive church renovation works were held during 1630ies.

Three German order’s masters are buried in the church – W. von Bruggenei, J.-F. von Loringhoven and W. von Plettenberg. Vidzeme counter-reformation bishop P. Nidecki, who was assigned by Polish government, is also resting in this church.