St. Katherine´s Church of Karja

The smallest church in Saaremaa is the medieval Karja church, dedicated to St.Catherine and St. Nicholas. Although small, it is the most beautiful of the churches in Saaremaa. The architectural design of the church is extremely simple: a two bayed nave, a choir and a vestry. It is the sculptural decor that makes the church a real jewel. Its portals, bosses and vaulting supports are decorated with superb High Gothic stone decor.

Such rich ornamentation and artistic quality cannot be found anywhere else in Estonian limestone architecture. They display both naturalistic plant motifs and scenes with figures. Both, the origin of the forms of the church and its exact date of construction remain obscure. The construction was probably undertaken at the end of the l3th century or the beginning of the l4th century. As well as the builders who were working in Muhu, other masters also worked here and introduced new artistic forms into Estonia. They probably came here from Germany (some via Sweden), but the source of the new forms lies even further away - in France.

An unusual feature of Karja church is a room with a fireplace, which has been built above the vestry. There is another fireplace in the loft. It was probably here that pilgrims broke their journey (via Scandinavia and Gotland) to Old Livonia. This function of the church might also explain its rich decoration. The choir is adorned with murals, which date back to the time when the church was built. There is also a medieval baptismal font (l4th century) and a small altar crucifix (late l5th century). B. Raschky made the Renaissance pulpit in 1638.

Small as it is, there is a feeling of space in the church. This is due to the vaults being nearly twice as high as the walls. The ribs rest on corner pillars and pilaster-like projections, which are decorated with sculpted capitals. As well as the High Gothic forms, there are some curiously archaic motifs, such as the shaft rings in the corners of the choir. In order to keep the vaults dry, gargoyles were built onto the springing of the vaults. Some of them are in the form of human faces, and bodies have been painted underneath them. The chancel arch, which is flanked by sculptural groups under baldaquins, is particularly impressive.

The vault above the choir is covered with strange signs the meaning of which remains unclear. It has been assumed that they were intended for keeping demonic powers out of the church, following the principle that evil should be warded off with evil. Some of the motifs - the pentagram, for - were already used for the same purpose in pagan times. There is also a sign consisting of three legs (the triscelion) on the vault. For the Vikings, this was the sign of Odin, but in the Middle Ages it was the symbol of the Trinity. The so-called shank-devil - a face peeping out from between parted legs - is also associated with apotropaic magic. In the medieval grotesque this also signified the exposing of the vulva. The same meaning may have been attributed to the face with the lips drawn back in a grimace, which cab be seen on one of the consoles.

Sculptured details in the interior
Several masters seem to have worked on the sculptured details. Apart from naturalistic foliage in High Gothic style we can see the crocket capital popular in the early Gothic period, and the Romanesque stylised palmetto. Masters of different generations seem to have contributed, but they have applied their different aims with equal skill.

St. Catherine
On the northern side of the chancel arch is the figure of Catherine of Alexandria, who was engaged to Christ in her youth. She was celebrated both for her beauty and her intelligence. After defeating fifty philosophers in a dispute, she became the patron saint of scholars, symbolised by the book in her hand. Attracted by Catherine's charm, the pagan Emperor Maxentius (Emperor of Rome from 306 to 312) attempted to marry her. Catherine refused him and was thrown into prison. As a prisoner she converted the Empress Faustina and the General Porphyrios together with two hundred Roman soldiers to Christianity. Then Maxentitus ordered her to be executed.

Catherine stands in the middle of the sculptural group holding the palm of martyrdom. Heavenly angels are crowning her. The kneeling Faustina and Porphyrios are clinging to her coat. Beneath the legs of the saint is the huddled figure of the pagan Emperor. The Devil beside him leaves us in no doubt as to where his subsequent journey will take him.

St. Nicholas
The composition on the south side of the chancel arch is dedicated to St. Nicholas. The Bishop is associated with many good deeds and miracles. For example, he is said to have given a bag of gold to a poor man's three unmarried daughters, which helped them to get married. Thus, he became the patron saint of maidens. The legend also tells of an innkeeper who killed children, salted them and served the flesh to his customers. Nicholas restored three boys to life and thus became the patron saint of children. But first and foremost, he was the patron of seafarers, for he calmed the raging seas during a voyage to the Holy Land and prevented the ship from sinking.

In Karja, St. Nicholas is depicted in his full robes handing a bag of gold through a window to the sisters. The kneeling figure of a monk with a boat in his hands must be St. Nicholas the saviour of ships. On the western edge of the composition a man is holding a boy who is tied up. It is possible, though, that this is not a depiction of the scene with the innkeeper but the saving of three innocent youths from being unjustly executed.

The Calvary relief
Like the western portal, the southern porch too was particularly beautifully designed. It was crowned with a decorative gable, on top of which there was a relief that was later set into the wall of the porch. It depicts the scene at Calvary with Mary and John mourning for Christ. Here too, the moralizing aspect predominates. The two crucified robbers also appear on the relief: one of them listened to Jesus and repented of his sins, the other, however, only laughed at Christ's words. The relief depicts the moment when the souls, in the form of little children, depart from the robber's bodies. The meaning of repentance is clearly revealed to us: an angel takes care of one of the souls, while the other has to make a journey with the Devil.

The console on the northern wall of the nave
The northern end of the transverse arch is supported by a console, which, although small, contains several figures. There are figures of two women in the middle. Details of their clothing, including huge brooches, suggest that, similarly to the figures in Pöide church, they represent peasants. They serve a chiefly moral purpose. As in the scenes with the Calvary group and Catherine of Alexandria, one of the characters is the Devil. This time he has captured a youth who is trying to paw a married woman. It is not clear whether the third figure, which is covering his mouth with his hands, is also related to the scene. The latter, together with a rose - the symbol of silence, was perhaps to exhort women to hold their tongues.