Kuressaare Castle, also known as Kuressaare Episcopal Castle, (Estonian: Kuressaare piiskopilinnus) was built in the 14th century. Today, the Castle houses Saaremaa Museum with its permanent exhibition and sundry temporary exhibitions.
The convent building of the Kuressaare Episcopal Castle is the only surviving medieval fortification in the Baltic countries that has not been much reconstructed. In addition to aesthetic pleasure that the elegant, decorous and magnificent architecture offers, a visit to the castle allows to explore the local history through an immediate experience and to feel the breath of the Middle Ages.
Convent building of Kuressaare Castle
The convent building is a magnificent example of the late Gothic style in the architecture of fortifications. The extreme strictness of the exterior and the monumental heaviness form an organic union with the tasty internal architectural elements and decor, that dominates despite its simplicity.
The length of the side of the convent building is 43 meters. The height of the powerful 7-storey Defence Tower in the northern corner is 37 meters. A meter wide defence gallery with battlements surrounding the castle was renovated in the first half of the 1980s. It enabled the defenders to move from one wing to another with ease while at watch or defending it. The gate of the castle had to be defended the most, we can see a 2-storey gate-guarding building or oriel next to the Defence Tower. On the first floor there is the lifting mechanism of the portcullis; from the openings of the upper floor stones, hot tar or water was thrown at the enemies or arrows shot. This defence system was restored by analogy. The only original elements are dolomite pillars that make it possible to move the portcullis.
In 1876 the coat-of-arms of Saare-Lääne (Oesel-Wiek) bishopric with the central figure of an eagle, was placed above the gate. Hence the German name Arensburg, which means: the castle of an eagle. Entering the gate we step into the gateway, where a cannon from the year 1803 is exhibited. There are openings in the walls next to the gate – one could put horizontal beams into them and close the entrance safely. We can see such openings in the wall of the bishop’s bedroom also. A vase carved and decorated with the motifs of medieval baptismal fonts decorates the almost-square courtyard.
The basement rooms Kuressaare Castle
The basement rooms of the Kuressaare Castle were used to store provision. In the south-eastern wing a kitchen and side-rooms: the brewery and the furnace were situated. Today they are restored and used as the museum shop and toilets.
In the same wing of the building we find the well that is accessible from the courtyard. A door in the eastern side of the yard takes you into a notorious basement room. A legend says that the immured cellar was discovered by accident in 1785 and a skeleton of a human being was found in there. It was supposed to be an inquisitor monk sent to Saaremaa to fight against Protestantism at the beginning of the XVI century, but because of an exposed love affair he was caught and immured alive. The room is named even today “the cellar of the immured knight”. In the south-western and north-western part of the building we can find special devices of central heating – the hypocaust that heated the rooms on the main floor – the festive refectory and the bishop’s living-quarters. The heating system consists of big ovens. There is a pile of stones above the ovens that heats the air, and a system of shafts that leads the warm air to the upper floor. The openings in the floor were possible to be closed with dolomite corks. One of the hypocausts next to the exhibition room is restored The openings can be seen in the floor of the festive refectory on the main floor – one of the openings is an original one. The department of Natural Science of the museum is in the three basement rooms of the north-western part and it was opened in 1993.
The main floor of Kuressaare Castle
The main floor is elaborately built, because the most important rooms are located there. The architecture of the Kuressaare convent building is unique in Estonia from the aspect of the rooms’ distribution and stone carved decorations. In the other buildings of this kind the rooms are distinctly separated into naves, aisles and bays of vault, but in the festive rooms in Kuressaare the decorative elements are ribbed vaults.
Ascending the staircase to the main floor, we find ourselves in the cloister – a gallery surrounding the courtyard on four sides and connecting all the rooms of the main floor. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful archways in the late Gothic style in Old-Livonia. In the south-western and north-western wing original beautiful and richly profiled ribs of the cross vaults spring straightly from the walls. Characteristic Gothic windows with pointed arches and restored stone carved window frames open into the courtyard. On the walls hang the coats-of-arms carved out of dolomite, once belonging to the Saaremaa noblemen and dating from the beginning of XX century. In the north-western wing we find a stone piscina – a ritual place for washing hands. Next to it a portal with richly profiled jambs, opening into the main hall of the castle – the Festive Refectory.
The Festive Refectory is a five transverse-arched hall with two aisles, which was evidently designed shorter. It can be seen that the north-western pillar differs from the others. The vaults are covered with strong profiled groins giving the room special spaciousness. The aim of the massive octagonal table round the pillar in the south-eastern part is not very clear. Evidently the sessions of the cathedral chapter – consisting of high ranking clergymen were sometimes held there. At the beginning of the XX century the noblemen of Saaremaa adapted the room for holding the Landtag. The Neo-Gothic doors made in Riga date from the same period.
The medieval look of the room was restored in 1976. Today it is used as a splendid concert hall with good acoustics. The chairs in the hall are made by local masters according to a century-old designs.
In the south corner of the convent building a chapel – the highest room in the castle is situated. It is a square room with a slender octagonal central pillar supporting the vaults. In the south-western wall of the chapel there is a big and in the south-eastern part a small sacramental niche.
Both of the niches are elaborately decorated: consoles support pinnacles, there are crockets (a decorative pattern resembling flowers and leaves) above the niches and triple orbs completing the canopy. There is a medieval altar table that has suffered from the effect of the time. The stone pulpit in the north-eastern wall is from a later period. Three dolomite stone plates made by craftsman Reynken from Tallinn in about 1515 are part of the north-western wall of the chapel. On the middle one we see the symbol of the bishopric and the castle – an eagle.
The living-quarters of the bishop is in the north-western wing. The corner room and the bedroom originally formed one room. These rooms are covered with simple vaults that are supported by octagonal pillars. Many pillars are decorated with details of triangular pyramid carvings. The upper parts of the pillars in the dormitory are nose-shaped, but the foundations are analogical to the pillars in the Refectory. A part of the room is separated by heavy walls into a peculiar windowless sanctuary, that could safely be closed from inside. This room with a stone platform inside was evidently the bishop’s private area. That room has a connection to the murder of Bishop Heinrich III in the castle in 1381. The bishop was strangled by canon Hermann Bolne during a quarrel. Owing to this fact Kuressaare castle was first mentioned in the chronicles. There is a staircase from the corner room to an extending balcony – dansker in the north-western wing. In the same room there is a fireplace (the present design dates from the beginning of the XX century) decorated with triple orbs and a beautiful coat-of-arms of the castle.
On the walls of the bishop’s living-quarters there are eleven splendid works of Baroque wood carving art from the second half of the XVII century – epitaphs with the coats-of-arms of the Saaremaa noblemen. Making such epitaphs originates from the XIV century Germany, where the coat-of-arms of the dead person, after having been carried at the head of the funeral procession was left in the church. In the XVII century with the development of the Baroque style the coat-of-arms became luxurious and considerably big epitaphs. The task of the epitaph is to preserve the memory of a person or a family. The epitaphs exhibited here are brought from the country churches of Saaremaa at the beginning of the XX century.
In the bigger dormitory in the north-eastern wing there is a big fireplace with the original base restored in 1976 and a door opening into a shaft surrounding the Watchtower and known as the “Lions’ pit”. The legend says that wild animals were kept in the shaft and the convicted prisoners were thrown to them. Actually the door opens into a "dansker" – a closed stone gallery, which used to be a medieval toilet. Another dansker extending above the shaft opened to the other dormitory. The last and the second hall in the north-eastern wing – a dining-hall is being used as an administrative office of the museum today.
The Watchtower of Kuressaare Castle
In the eastern corner of the main floor a narrow staircase takes us to the Watchtower (Tall Herman), that is the oldest and the best preserved part of the castle. When going through the entrance one sees the mantelpiece chimney over the furnace in the basement. The only entrance is 9 meters high and connected with the main building by a bridge. In the Middle Ages when the enemy stormed into the castle, the defenders could take a refuge in the tower after having lifted the drawbridge. A view at the shaft opens from the bridge and one can see that the tower is separated from the castle. A bit lower you may see the extending dansker that can be entered from the dormitory. In the upper shaft you can see the remnants of the toilet of the guards. So the s. c. “Lion’s pit” was used as a sewage system for three toilets. On the main floor of the Watchtower you may see a square opening covered with bars that leads into a 9 meter deep cellar. Old stories say that some hostages were kept there, hence the most popular name of the tower – Prison Tower. Evidently the cellar was used as a storeroom. There are four more floors above the main floor, three of them having fireplaces in the walls.
The Defence Tower of Kuressaare Castle
The Defense Tower has suffered the most and has been rebuilt considerably. The interior of the second floor has preserved the looks from the beginning of the XX century. Neo-Gothic paintings on the plastered walls, the main detail being the symbol of the coat-of-arms of the Buxhoevedens, a fireplace made of glazed tiles and dolomite, a staircase and a gallery made of oak tree. A new concrete staircase – to safeguard the visitors – takes us to the VII floor and the Tower café opened in summer. Inside the walls of the tower the medieval narrow staircases have been preserved. Originally the staircases started about 1 m above the floor. That made it more difficult for the enemy to attack the tower. The V floor is on the same surface as the defense gallery. There are 2 preserved fireplaces in the wall, (one in the northern, the other in the southern corner). Through the doors in the western and eastern corners the defenders had an easy access to the defense gallery. In the north-eastern corner of the VI floor there is a unique piscina with 13 orbs immured into the windowsill, originally the piscina was evidently in some other place. It is not impossible that the piscina was at this spot, if the room served as a temporary church (but then the Defence Tower must be older than the Watchtower).