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From December 2016, people in Tallinn have been able to climb up a 10-metre wooden installation to get to go face to face with apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, The Four Evangelists and Jesus Christ figure above all and other baroque sculptures adorning the 17th century altar of the medieval Tallinn St Mary’s Cathedral. The students of the Estonian Academy of Arts built a gigantic black staircase-scaffolding-installation around the altar of the church to help conservation experts access the nine metre high wooden baroque altar carved by the talented and scandalous Tallinn-based baroque master Christian Ackermann in the Cathedral. For Christmas, the huge installation is being turned into an advent calendar of sort, with the rows of pathways slowly filling with christmas trees. The wooden scaffolding will be open for viewing and even climbing for an unfixed period – but you need to book a tour to climb all the way to the top.

The project has received praise from conservators and the church congregation alike. The head of the conservation project, Estonian Academy of Arts Conservation Department Associate Professor Hilkka Hiiop explains that the idea to develop scaffolding into a installation project was inspired by the feeling that regular scaffolding becomes often a too-dominant element inside a church or any other heritage building, offering no dialogue with the history and the context. The conservators and the church also thought that building a different, more substantial installation would allow also visitors to climb up to get a different point of view of the church as well as see the sculptures of the altar from closer than ever. The scaffolding installation was designed by Estonian Academy of Arts interior architecture students after a week-long workshop focussing on the history and context of the location.

Commenting on the project, the head of the interior architecture department of the academy, professor Hannes Praks said that the department loves choosing co-operation projects that push students to dive into new context: be it historical, cultural or spatial. The workshop at Tallinn Dome that resulted in the dramatic black installation began with a thorough look into the rich history of the church, especially the 1684 big fire that destroyed most of the church interior (and in fact much of the rest of Old Tallinn Toompea area), thus allowing sculptor Christian Ackermann to secure the large scale new altar commission, launching his career. The Great Fire is also to some extent the inspiration behind painting the whole installation black – the black beams providing a visual reference to charred wood.

The conservation research project looking into the altar itself is led by historian and Ackermann expert Tiina-Mall Kreem from the Estonian Art Museum and conservators Isabel Aaso-Zahradnikova and Hilkka Hiiop. Estonian Academy of Arts conservation students are also involved in the project.