Sunday, April 29, 2007

Spires (and Roosters) of Riga

When I shut my eyes and think “Riga,” I see ancient church spires. Clearly, I’m not the only one because the logo for the 800th anniversary of the city in 2001 used a line (almost like an electrocardiogram) for those spires. And for nearly 800 years, four of those spires have been landmarks: the Dome Cathedral, St. Peter’s, St. Jacob’s, and St. John’s churches.

The cornerstone of the Dome was laid in 1211, becoming the headquarters of Albert, Bishop of Riga and founder of the city during German domination. Now it’s slightly sunken from the rest of Dome Square in the middle of Vēcriga (the old, medieval city), and claims the title of largest church in the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia). After the Protestant Reformation, the cathedral lost much of its elaborate interior. Today it’s famous for the fine organ (Walcker, 1884) and frequent organ concerts. [To check on what might be happening during our visit in July:]

St. Peter’s church (1209) is a Gothic structure with the tallest (405 feet), wedding-cakey spire, which has been rebuilt three times. The first wooden steeple, erected in 1491, collapsed. Its replacement was badly damaged by lightning and replaced in 1721. That one lasted until 1941, when German mortar fire destroyed both the tower and most of the church. The ragged stump of St. Peter’s waited 3 decades during Soviet times before the current steel tower was built in 1973. If you take the elevator up to the observation platform (a custom of Latvian couples on their wedding day), the bird's eye view is great. Admission is about 1.5 Lati, and the elevator is open 10-18 except on Mondays. (Our hotel, the Reval Hotel Latvija, has the other great panoramic view of Riga from the Skyline Bar on the 26th floor.)

St. John’s church (1234) began as a Dominican cloister. After the monks were tossed out during the Reformation (around 1523), it was a stable for the mayor’s horses, then an arsenal, until the Polish king seized it and gave it to the Jesuits. They were eventually replaced by the Lutherans. Lots of old Riga buildings metamorphosed over the centuries in similar ways. St. John’s was where my husband was baptized in 1941, when the city teetered back and forth between the Nazis and the Communists, before his family fled westward in 1944.

St. Jacob’s (1225-26), having changed hands several times, returned to being the Roman Catholic archbishop’s church in 1922. For me, its claim to fame is having the weather cock with the most character (see photo to the right).

Yes, I’m back to my bird theme again

For the 800-year jubilee of Riga’s founding, the rooster was chosen as the city’s symbol. The ancient steeples mentioned above had a rooster weather vane on top even back in the 1200s. Fires destroyed them frequently, but soon another gailis (Latvian rooster) would take its place. To tell which direction the wind is blowing, look where his beak is pointing.

In Christian folklore generally, I believe, the Devil is supposed to be terrified of the sound of crowing and can’t stand to be seen by the cock. According to legend, the rooster atop the Dome forecast times of abundance and of famine. One side of the rooster was painted black and the other, gold. If Rigans saw the black side, it indicated the doldrums had gripped the Baltic Sea, and no foreign ships could enter the harbor with their goods. But when the rooster flashed its gold side, then the local merchants knew ships would soon arrive, and a good marketing day was in store. Nowadays Riga’s roosters are gilded on both sides—in hopes of good times 24/7. Some of the older birds are still on display inside the Dome and St. Peter’s. St. Jacob’s copper rooster (my fave) has endured since 1736, while St. John’s (now in the eaves rather than at the top) is the oldest, dating from 1680.

Just as country Latvians think their storks are a sign of good luck, the urban Latvians revere their gaili as symbols of alertness, peace, prosperity, and as one writer says, “[they stand] ever vigilant against the Powers of Darkness”--a central Latvian theme. They've even been incorporated into the 1-Lats coin.

BTW, Latvian roosters don’t say “cock-a-doodle-do”. They say “kikerigī” (sounds like kicker-ee-ghee), which never ceased to amuse our daughters--along with Latvian dogs who say “vau-vau,” pigs who say “ruk-ruk,” and ducks who say “pēkš-pēkš. Our friend the sheep still says “bēēē” (baaaa). Which reminds me, I need to talk next week about knitting in Latvia.


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