Altarpiece in St Anne's Church in Liepāja, 1697, by Sculptor Nicolaus Söffrens the Younger (1662–1710)
The altarpiece in St Anne’s church in Liepāja, made by sculptor Nicolaus Söffrens the Younger, is the largest altarpiece in Eastern Europe. It is an extraordinary accomplishment at the peak of the Baroque period – a woodcut lavishly decorated with ornamental, figurative, and architectural elements. With this piece, the Baroque monumental decorative art completely replaced the Late Renaissance style in the Kurzeme region, establishing a new paradigm of local church art. It also served as a model for the subsequent larger work by Söffrens, the altar in Lestene Church, preserved only in fragments.
The altarpiece made for the Latvian congregation of St Anne’s Church in Liepāja was completed in 1697, as the inscription on the side column attests, yet it wasn’t painted and gilded until around 1712. The work was paid for by then Liepāja mayor Johann Plander and his wife. It was created by Nicolaus Söffrens of Ventspils, whose father came to the Kurzeme region of Latvia in the first half of the 16th century to work on the ornamentation of the duke’s fleet. The current dark colour of the altarpiece was added only in the 20th century.
The altarpiece in St Anne’s Church is monumental, measuring 9.7 m tall and 5.8 m wide. It is composed as an architectural structure in three levels, topped by curved eaves. In the centre of the first level we find the Golgotha depiction with Jesus on the cross, flanked by Mary and John. Above, is a woodcut of the Plander coat of arms. Between the columns we see figures from the Old and the New Testament: John, Christ, and Peter, on the left; and Jacob, Moses, and Thomas, on the right. The apostles surround the Entombment of Christ on the second level, with the allegorical figures of Faith and Love on either far side. The third level comprises the “Resurrection of Christ”, upheld by angels, and again surrounded by apostles, crowned by the scene “Christ, Our Savior”. The balanced structure of the altarpiece is constituted by Corinthian columns, joined in the upper two levels by vines. The pedestals and friezes are covered in these vines, along with a great variety of acanthus leaves, fruit, and flower arrangements, which also hang in the niches. The sculptures of biblical virtue are set out from the background or silhouette the altar piece along the sides. Söffrens has a dramatic style, his figures imposing and quite serious.
Some of the figures diverge from the overall style and have a softer, more gentle appearance. These include the small angelic figure in the Golgotha depiction, the figures of Faith and Love, and the moulding of the Resurrection and the Entombment, which were carved by Joachim Kreuzfeldt (1673–1721). He worked in Söffrens’ workshop and his works can be found in churches in the southwestern parts of Kurzeme. The altarpiece in St Anne’s Church is truly impressive in its detailed opulence, and it remains the Baltic region’s most exceptional Baroque monument.
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