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NICOLAOS SÖFFRENS, JUNIOR Liepaja St. Ann's Church Altar Retable, 1697

The largest retable in Eastern Europe. An outstanding achievement in woodcraft, saturated with ornamental, architectural, and figurine motifs from the mature Baroque period.

Liepāja St. Ann’s Church’s altar is the largest and, from the artistic point of view, the most valuable Baroque wood carving in Latvia. Its importance transcends the Latvian borders, however, the altar belonging to the Baltic region's foremost Baroque artistic monuments.

The retable was done by Ventspils sculptor Nicolaos Söffrens, der Jüngere, 1662-1710, whose father had arrived in Courland in the first half of the 17th century to work on the Duke’s fleet decorations. Liepāja Latvian parish’s St. Ann's church altar was completed in 1697, as can be gleaned from the inscription on an outer column of the lower tier of the retable. The altar construction was financed by Liepaja burgomaster Johann Planders and his wife. The altar retable was painted and gilded around 1712, but the current dark color appeared at the beginning of the 20th century.

With this work, the Courland Baroque monumental decorative art freed itself from the remnants of mannerism, and created a benchmark for local church art, which served as a model for Söffrens’s next, even more large-scale project, the Lestene church altar, of which only fragments have survived

The architectural design of the monumental (9.7 x 5.8 m) St. Ann's church altar retable is composed of three tiers, which are topped with a curved ledge with a helix. At the center of the lower tier of the altar is the "Golgotha" group, with Christ on the Cross as well as figures of Mary and St. John and with a wood carving burgomaster Planders’s coat of arms above.  Between the columns stand the Old and New Testament characters with their characteristic attributes: John, Christ, and Peter on the left and Jacob, Moses, and Thomas on the right. The relief depicting "Laying in the Grave" at the center of the retable’s second tier includes the apostles, but on the projections of both external eaves "Faith" and "Love" allegorical figures are situated. The third tier "Resurrection of Christ" relief is held by angels, with figures of the apostles to the sides, but the whole composition is crowned by "Christ, Savior of the World ". The balanced tectonics of the retable warrants the use of Corinthian columns that in the two upper floors are connected by fruit and flower garlands. Along with the richly varied acanthuses and flower and fruit groups, garlands cover the podiums and friezes and are hanging from the niches, but Biblical figures seem to step out of the niches dramatically or accentuate the side silhouette of the retable. Söffrens’s sculptures are prone to drama, figures are monumental and solemn and the mood they evoke is full of tension and gloom.  

Some of the retable sculptures demonstrate more naive solutions and softer forms: the figure of the small angel in the "Golgotha" group, the allegoric sculptures of "Faith" and "Love", as well as the reliefs of "Resurrection" and "Laying in the Grave" have been made by a wood carver whose works are found in the churches of southwestern Courland and may be attributed to Joachim Kreuzfeldt.

Imants Lancmanis

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