One of the oldest and most interesting buildings in Riga is the Great Guild, which was built in 1858 and is located between Zirgu, Amatu and Kaleju streets.
In 1282 Riga joined the North German city trading union Hansa. The Hanseatic League governed all trade along the Baltic seacoast and it founded the Guild of the Holy Spirit, which took on merchants and craftsmen. Gradually the Guild of the Holy Spirit divided into two groups, which historically came to be known as two rooms and took their names from German cities —the Muenster Room and the Soest Room. It is assumed that Riga’s first immigrants came from these two cities. Later both organisations of the Guild were separated according to economic and social interests: German merchants met in the Great Guild Muenster Room, and German craftsmen met in the Small Guild Soest Room. In 1354 the joint merchants adopted organisational statutes in the Muenster Room, and therefore this is considered to be the year of its foundation.
The Guild’s court took up an entire block at the end of Amatu street by Kaleju street.
A Franciscan monastery had been located next to the Guild’s court since 1258. Its proximity created a legend that the meeting places of both Guilds were located in parts of the former monastery and that the Great Guild’s meeting hall had formerly been the monastery’s dining hall. The Guild’s court was separated from the rest of the city by the Guild’s gate, which was demolished in 1863. Engraved plaques, which were attached to the Guild’s gate, were fixed into the building’s outer wall on both sides of the entrance from the courtyard.
Over the course of the centuries, the Great Guild building has been enlarged several times. The most significant change to the exterior was made in 1697, when a beautiful Baroque facade was erected; the interior was altered repeatedly, in order to adapt to the building’s various functions. Feasts and banquets, including wedding celebrations, took place here regularly.
The old building of the Great Guild was a two-storey stone structure, and in 1853 it was rebuilt. The new building was much larger, and occupied up the entire area from the courtyard to Kaleju street. The new building encompassed the virtually unaltered old Guild meeting hall (Muenster) and the bride’s chamber (Fireplace Hall).
The Muenster Hall, which was built in 1330, is still located in the Great Guild even today. It is the oldest section of a public building in the Baltic States, because when the current Great Guild was built a hundred years ago, the old meeting hall was incorporated within the structure that surrounded it, preserving the old window apertures in the wall between the halls.
It is amazing that despite repeated reconstructions of the building, Muenster Hall has been preserved in its original form up until today, with its Gothic cross arches, central stone pillars, musicians’ balcony built in 1646, where city musicians used to perform, and the coats-of-arms of the Hanseatic cities, which were painted on the walls in 1898. Only a few pieces of art — sculptures and silverware — that were formerly in the Hall are now missing. A statue of the Madonna, created in 1488 and called “Docke” was particularly famous.
The Fireplace Hall, built in 1521, is connected to the Muenster Hall by a small anteroom. Formerly it was called the Bride’s Chamber. An ornate star-shaped arch decorates the ceiling of Fireplace Hall. Unfortunately, the arches of the Bride’s Chamber were rebuilt in the 19th century due to cracks that had formed and unlike the original location, the current location of this room was changed towards the courtyard in 1853.
Inside the Fireplace Hall is a fireplace made of sandstone in 1633. On it is a relief of an arched room portraying the figures of a dying king and his sons, who are listening to their father’s last lesson—to live together harmoniously like a bundle of sticks, which cannot be broken, unlike an individual stick that can break easily. Under this sculpture is a couplet in German that reminded the Great Guild’s elders of a truth:
“Do not say what people like to hear,
But that, which expresses goodness.”
Next to the Muenster Hall is the White Hall, which was built in the 19th century during the construction of the new Great Guild. The wall between these two halls, which was formerly an exterior wall, now has four doors in addition to the window apertures. A wooden staircase connects the White Hall to the Great Hall. The arches and columns in the White Hall are particularly beautiful and give the room good acoustics.
On top of the old halls, There were plans to build a large and spacious hall in the 19th century above the old halls, which would occupy the entire top floor. The fate of this hall has been varied. In 1936 the Great Hall, with its splendid woodwork interior, was adapted for the needs of a Congress Hall. Unfortunately it was ruined by fire in 1963. As the Great Hall had been the Latvian Philharmonic’s concert hall since 1941, it was rebuilt after the 1963 fire as a concert hall in accordance with the project by architect M. Gelzis. In the summer of 1998, architect L. Markova successfully combined the 19th century window apertures, stage and ceiling panels from the 1960s with an antique wall colouring.
Up until the 19th century, trade in Riga was monopolised by the German merchants of the Great Guild, thereby ensuring that Riga’s merchants had the privileges of middlemen between the East and the West. The mightiness of the Riga traders is magnificently portrayed in the stained glass window created in 1888 by the German artist A. Freistalt. The window is located on the staircase above the former outer-doors and depicts an important event that took place in 1353, when the Riga Ordermaster bestowed the building, which had been property of the city, to the Great Guild organisation.
Another noteworthy stained glass composition is in the annexed entrance hall on the second floor, which is called the Stained Glass Hall.
In 1936 A. Cirulis created four scenes in these stained glass windows that depict important activities in Riga.