Visual Commemoration: Grave Slabs of Masters and High Officials of the Teutonic Order in Livonia (14th–16th Centuries)
The Teutonic Order was one of the most powerful political agents in medieval Livonia. This paper focuses on the grave slabs and commemorations of high-ranking Teutonic knights. Their graves are studied based on the written evidence of where the masters and high officials were buried, along with the spatial and liturgical context of their graves. Then the grave slabs which have either survived or are known from historical drawings or photos are examined. There is information on only seven slabs: three of them belonged to Livonian masters, two to marshals and two to commanders. The visual and textual messages of the slabs are analysed: what motifs and symbols were used, how the deceased were represented, and what the language and content of the inscriptions were. The topic of how the location and appearance of the slabs have changed since the 19th century is also addressed.
A proper Christian burial and liturgical commemoration fitting for one’s social rank were important matters for every medieval man, including the leading figures of the Order. Unlike the grand masters in Prussia, the Livonian masters did not have a special and defined place of burial. In 1469, Johann von Mengede was interred in the chancel of the Riga cathedral, but the archbishop forbade the setting of a grave slab there for his political opponent. The cathedral did not become a traditional burial place of the masters; instead, from the late 15th century on they were laid to rest in the town church of St John’s in Cēsis.
The customary burial place for the Tallinn commanders was the cathedral of Tallinn. In 1516, Commander Evert von Werminghausen was interred there in front of the high altar.
The earliest inscribed grave slab of the Order belonged to Marshal Andreas von Steinberg (d. 1375). The slab was found during the excavations of the ruins of the Aizkraukle church in 1939, but was lost during or after World War II. The Viljandi Commander Frank Spee (d. 1404) was, for an unknown reason, buried in St John’s church in Cēsis. Only two fragments of the grave slab have survived. The slab of the former Commander Kort von Vietinghoff (d. 1506), once located in the town church of St Nicholas in Pärnu, is known thanks to two 18th-century drawings. These slabs were all decorated with the family coat of arms.
The earliest surviving slabs depicting the full figure of the deceased were for Marshal Johann von Krieckenbeck (d. 1471), and for Master Johann Freitag von Loringhoven (d. 1494), both in Cēsis. The deceased were depicted wearing distinctive mantles of the Order, with crosses on the left shoulders: a well-known sign visually identifying the deceased as Teutonic knights. Neither of them were dressed in armour or carrying weapons. Rather, the emphasis was on the piety of the deceased and on the religious side of the military order.
In the first decades of the 16th century, the embellishment of the slabs became more elaborate and varied. The most notable innovation was the depiction of the deceased in full armour, standing in a three-quarter frontal position and usually holding a distinctive weapon of a knight such as a long sword. The slabs of the Masters Wolter von Plettenberg (d. 1535) and Hermann von Brüggenei (d. 1549) belong to this novel type. Nowadays, only the slab of Brüggenei still exists. The slab of Plettenberg is almost completely destroyed: only three small fragments from its lower part have survived. Judging from Brotze’s drawings, the figures on the slabs of Plettenberg and Brüggenei were rather similar to one another: both masters were represented as proud princely warriors, dressed in full armour with crosses of the Order on their chests.
Grave slabs, their iconography and inscriptions played a significant role in the late medieval culture of commemoration. Large and richly decorated slabs were expensive and luxurious prestige objects. Thus, the slabs of masters and high officials of the Order were important markers of social rank and position. The inscriptions, coats of arms, religious symbols and figures in distinctive dress or armour were meant to represent and commemorate the deceased both as a member of a group – the Order – and as an individual of noble birth. The location of the slabs in front of the high altar, which was the focal point of the liturgy, further emphasised the high position of the deceased.