Vastseliina Episcopal Castle
VASTSELIINA – THE TOWN OF THE HOLY CROSS IN ST MARY’S LAND
The rapid Piusa river descends from the Haanja Upland, goes through the small town of Vastseliina and makes its first big curve in order to turn from east to north. From the right, the Meeksi stream flows into the river. The resulting high and steep cape has been guarding the ruins of Vastseliina castle for centuries.
Today, the castle ruins have almost disappeared under the wilderness in the manor park, which is why travellers arriving from the west notice them at the last moment. Still, a special sensation will have gripped them already seven kilometres earlier – when they arrive near Vastseliina church from the Võru road: high ridges of Haanja Uplands continue all around, also valleys with their fields, copses and villages. Mighty nature, creation of a mighty Creator!
It is not known when people started building here. An Estonian castle probably stood on the hill between the valleys before Christianity arrived. According to the Baltic-German historian Wilhelm Stavenhagen, the crusaders began fortifying the hill as early as 1273, during the rule of the Tartu bishop Friedrich von Haseldorp. Fearing the Russian threat, it was made much grander in 1342 on the instructions of the Livonian order’s grand master Burchard von Dreileben. A powerful and impressive castle with double walls and tall towers was erected between the valleys. It is historically known as Vastseliina, or in German as Neuhausen. The Latin description was castrum fortissimum in tota patria – „the strongest castle in the whole fatherland”. To make the eastern border even safer, another castle was started 40 km southwards on the same day, 25 March 1342, the Feast of the Annunciation. Until our century, it had a most apt name – Marienburg, St Mary’s town. Today it is known in Latvian as Aluksne. In older documents Vastseliina was mentioned in Low German as unzer leven frowen borch.
However, even the strongest walls are no help if the higher powers do not protect a town. Medieval people expected this to be confirmed. One September night in 1353, beautiful music was heard from the second floor of the main tower of the empty castle chapel, which was shining in miraculous light coming from two wax candles that had burst into flames themselves. The cross had got unstuck from the altar’s northern wall and stood in the middle of the altar, totally unsupported.
News about the revelation spread widely and in the following January the archbishop of Riga Frommhold von Vyffhusen sent a letter about it to Pope Innocent VI. The letter is still preserved in the supplication register in Avignon. Pilgrims began pouring to see the famous Vastseliina cross from Estonia, Latvia, Germany and elsewhere. The Pope granted visitors to Vastseliina a 40-day erasing of the punishment for sins, a dispensation renewed by Pope Eugenius in 1432. Pilgrimages continued throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, and Vastseliina was now called in Latvian Krustpils, i.e. castle of the cross.
The Livonian War (1558–1583) then broke out, which became the longest and most devastating in our country. In fear of spies, the gates were closed to the pilgrims. They were advised to worship, from the eastern slope of Meeksi valley, the two-metre tall crosses decorating the tower wall.
On 29 June 1558, Russian troops conquered Vastseliina, which had bravely withstood them for six weeks. It would only be on 10 February 1582 that the King of Poland managed to chase the Russians out and restore the Catholic church. Despite continuing warfare, this did not change until August 1625. Only about 90 000 Estonians were still alive at that point; Vastseliina and bigger towns as well stood in ruins.
Under the reign of Swedish kings the Estonian population recovered, but the Catholic church did not. The radiating image of the holy cross remained in the seal of the Vastseliina Lutheran congregation and its large impressions on the upper part of the tower are clearly visible today.
Vastseliina is an episcopal border castle, but Estonia in fact continued on the other side of Meeksi valley – as Setumaa, i.e. the land of Setu people. These people lived for centuries under Russian power, were baptised in the Orthodox church, but consider themselves as special people in St Mary’s Land. Quite a few Vastseliina traditions survived after the Reformation.
On the banks of the Meeksi stream, six kilometres upstream from the castle, stands St John’s Stone, the sacred stone of the Setu people. John the Baptist allegedly slept on it. The Russian sources named it „warm stone” (tjoplõi kamen) in 1561. Professor Matthias Johann Eisen wrote about the stone at length in the early 20th century. Innumerable generations have burnt candles on the stone at Midsummer Eve, bringing donations from their fields and gardens; various diseases and ills were allegedly cured here. Travellers cannot but notice that the stone has been put together from several pieces. The Vastseliina manor lord was said to have been displeased that Setu people gathered on his land; he had the stone blown up and put into the stable walls. Soon, animals started to die there. The pieces of the stones had to be taken out of the wall and set up in the old place again.
The Meeksi Orthodox church was established near the stone and St John’s Day, according to the old calendar (7 July), is the name day of the church. The same evening, the traditional Church Mass (Kirchmesse, Kirmes in German) takes place on the high Kuksina hill. A truly magnificent view opens from up here.
This miracle, revealed already during the Creation, will stay with us until the end of time.