Stone-carving plays an important role in the architecture of Tallinn Old City. Stone-carving was used both in interior and exterior architecture, decorating public buildings and living-houses of ordinary citizens. Local raw material (limestone and Saaremaa dolomite) and Tallinn’s local tradition had a favourable influence to the development of that branch of art.
A local stone-carving art school (prefers a low relief), established in Tallinn as far back as in the 15th century, is understood as a local tradition.
These local master-pieces of stone-carving art cannot be directly compared to any art works of the same nature from other countries; only some examples can be found very far from here. Particularly in Germany and Gottland. Tallinn stone-art has been so much based on German wood-carving art that one can say - what was carved into wood in Low Germany that was carved into stone in Tallinn. German influence was much greater in architecture than in stone-carving art.
Development of local stone-art was influenced by Swedish masters who worked here as well as by a well-known master from the Netherlands - Arent Passer. Passer enriched our stone sculpture with Netherlands’ renaissance and some elegant forms of Fontainebleau school.
The stonemasons were mainly of local origin. There was lot of Estonians among them.
Flourishing age of Tallinn stone sculpture was the 16th century. Stone-carving was displaced with casting and shaping that were more ease to process.
Stone-carving works exhibited here belong to the periods of gothic, renaissance and baroque arts. The period of gothic art is considered here in a very rough way up to 30-ties of the 16th century and its flourishing period is expressed at the beginning of the 16th century.
The period of renaissance art is considered approximately 1530-1630 and baroque art’s period 1630-1780.
Artistic stoneworks are exhibited here. These are used as details to dwelling houses. Continuous rebuilding and applying of changing living-conditions have caused the process of turning these former constructional (span stones of interior portals, window columns, ettics, etc.) and decorative (relief slabs with figural composition, heraldic stones) stones into museum exhibits.
Before starting to observe the stone-carving works, let’s take a look at stone-masons and their organisations.
A stonemason has been called “Steenwerter”, “Steenworter” and “Steinworter” in historical documents. These words were understood as stone-builder and artistic stone-cutter. The stone-cutters were entitled to work as masons as well. These titles include also well known artists and masters. For instance, Gert Koningk who is known as a perfect artist, his occupation title was also “Steinwerter”.
The oldest known statute of stone-cutters - scra is from the year 1402. From that time their statutes have been from time to time renewed and amended. These statutes provide with some kind of information regarding the regulations and practise related to stonemasons’ work.
To study the speciality one had to be a citizen of Tallinn. All the masters who came from abroad were obliged to enter the membership of a relevant craft guild. The extent of an apprentice period was 3 years. In case any apprentice ran away from his master before completing the above mentioned period, no master was entitled to take him into apprenticeship. The extent of a journeyman period is not known. It is not clear also whether the training years under conduction of foreign masters were obligatory or not. The master examination was performed before a commission of 6-8 masters. A little door (a portal of the door from “dörnse” to cellar is meant by this word) a window column or a wash-hand basin was considered as a piece of master test.
Tallinn stonemasons were united as all other artisans of that time into a craft guild. Their craft guild belonged to St.Olaus’ Guild.
Some stonemasons were wealthy landlords and influential citizens. Stone-carving works were exported from Tallinn to Finland (Turku Cathedral) and other foreign countries.
Two outstanding masters worked in Tallinn at the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the 17th century - Hans von Aken and Arent Passer.
Exhibited decorative stone - a head of an angel on a triangle slab is from the end of the 16th century and is probably the work by Hans von Aken. This stone was found in 1935 during renovation works in Toompea Palace from western wall of former “state hall” and assumed as a covering slab of the fire-place. The stone is carved partially in high relief and partially in low relief. A pair of wings united in the centre is depicted on the stone and a face surrounded by mandoria between them. Only right ear is preserved from the face. Finishing of the wings, lozenges and feathers is entire masterpiece.
A tombstone for Swedish court marshal Olaf Ryning in Tallinn Dom Church is made by Aken in 1594. Aken worked also as an architect.
More outstanding than Aken, was a stonemason and architect of the Netherlands origin - Arent Passer. He was born in Hague, worked in Tallinn from the beginning of 1589 till his death in 1637. He was a Guild master of stonemasons' craft guild, further on a Guild master of St.Olaus’ Guild. The greatest masterpiece by Arent Passer as a sculpture was the tomb chest of the Swedish Commander-in Chief Pontus De la Gardie and his spouse in the Dome Church made in 1595. Architectural solution of the facade with numerous relieves of former building of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads at Pikk street 26, made in 1597 as well as several nice tomb monuments in the Dome Church - for the captain of cavalry Caspar von Tiesenhausen, Horn and Üexküll.
Passer’s style is influenced by French decorative sculpture named Primaticcio and after the workshop of Rosso in Fontainebleau. This widely developed outstanding school can be characterised by mannerly stretched out figures, slabs rounded by volutes and flanking figures.
Mannerism of the Netherlands that was established at the end of the 16th century was based in many aspects of the Fontainebleau school. Passer’s isolated activity in Tallinn hindered unfortunately his further creative development. An artisan conflation can be observed in his later works. Regardless of that he had a significant importance being a leading artist in whole Estonia. Stone sculpture art was influenced by his works from the end of the 16th century up to the middle of the 17th century. His style was followed by his son Dionysius Passer (portal endorsement from 1639 above the yard-door at Vene 19, a big flanked slab with hermits of the choir in the Holy Ghost Church, made in 1641) and his pupils: Henrich Dam or Tam and Jakob Dam (a number of decorative stone sculptures on packing house).
Limestone and Dolomite can surely be considered the symbols of Estonia.